Saturday, 2 June 2012

Tips for Nepal

Not many people would have the skill, inclination or money to climb to the peak of Mt Everest, but it turns out that it's not really all that difficult (or expensive) to at least get to its Base Camp. Even if you decide to flag that and just aim for the top of Kala Pattar, you get to enjoy the next best thing - getting a magnificent view of the highest mountains in the world, up close.

Advice columns for the Everest Base Camp trek have been posted a hundred times over already, but I figure there's no harm in me adding my version to the mix! So here it is.

We were really surprised to find that the three of us managed to go faster than most visitors on the trek, even though we didn't consider ourselves to be all that athletic. We had done some moderate training leading up to the trip, going to the gym a couple of times a week and doing some longer walks in the weekend, but hardly iron-man stuff!

Having a rest
Turns out being superfit - while it will make the walk more enjoyable - is not really a prerequisite for the trek. Sometimes you'll walk for as short as only 2 hours per day, as you can only ascend slowly to ensure your body acclimatises. It's about 62km from Lukla (where you fly in) and Everest Base Camp, and you do that over 8 or 9 days, so not very long distances per day at all.

It's pretty much a given that everyone hires a porter (support the local economy!), so the trip can actually be quite doable for most. Of course, it's still going to be a challenge and you will feel exhausted (and accomplished) at the end.

We saw more than a few people in their 60s doing it, as well as families with very young children. The Dutch couple we met had never done any trekking, ever, and the guy still made it to the top of Kala Pattar. Mind you, we also passed a Singaporean group who had two people helicoptered out due to altitude sickness, so you still have to be careful.

Accommodation places are regularly scattered throughout the walk, so you can easily take it more slowly if you need to. Point is, while it's no cakewalk and it helps to have some prior walking experience and be fairly fit, you don't need to follow some rigorous marathon-esque training schedule either.

What to take

Clothing - a really good down jacket, at least 600 loft (or maybe a 700 loft North Face Nuptse jacket if you can afford one) is a must-have. When you get to the colder areas you'll pretty much be wearing this the entire time you're not walking uphill or huddled by a fireplace, so it's a worthwhile investment. Other than that I recommend lots of merino thermal layers. You're not going to be doing any laundry for over 10 days so things that won't smell are handy. Add your usual thick socks, underwear, and outerwear and you should be fine. I had two pairs of walking pants, one to wear and one spare, and it was more or less enough. You should probably also take some waterproof gear, though we never ended up using ours as the weather was clear the entire time - still, wouldn't have left those at home though! Another essential is a warm hat, but instead of bringing your own, pick one up in Kathmandu or Lukla. One of Nepal's signature souvenirs seems to be novelty animal hats, and we couldn't resist each getting one each, however if you're not game there are plenty of plainer ones too.
Showing off our animal hats
Shoes - if you haven't already invested in good tramping boots with plenty of ankle support, now is the time to buy them. Well, actually, at least a couple of months before the walk, so you can wear them in properly. Don't be tempted by GrabOne deals or el-cheapo Warehouse pairs, because once your feet are full of blisters you'll wish you paid ten times what you did to swap them. I tried on probably a dozen pairs before I found the perfect one. Basically, your heel should not come away from the sole when you lift your foot in a step, and your toe should not be able to touch the inside of the tip when you're going downhill. The outdoor store person should be able to help here. Another great thing to have are some compact soft shoes you can slip into once you get to your hostel - and I wouldn't go with those down booties unless you don't mind having to wriggle back into your boots just to go to the loo. I found these wonderful zip-up Timberland shoes in Hong Kong - unfortunately by then I'd done the trek, but I still bought them for future use. Highly recommended!

Sleeping - a good down sleeping bag is handy, but you don't need to go overboard and start splashing out on the sort that Antarctic expeditions use either, because most likely you will be going to sleep with all your thermals on anyway, plus all guest houses have warm blankets you can throw on top.

Water - get yourself a 1 litre drinking bottle, and Aquatabs, and plenty of them. You're supposed to be drinking at least three (I think?) litres a day in those altitudes, and it's totally uneconomical (not to mention bad for the environment) to be buying bottled water. Aquatabs were completely tasteless and easy to use, and we never got sick, so obviously they worked fine. If one carton has 50 tablets (i.e. treats 50 litres), you might as well take a carton per person, there's no harm in having spares. You can also buy hot, boiled water, which can be nice for taking into your sleeping bag at night as a literal hot water bottle, but this gets very expensive the higher up you go.

Toiletries - hot showers are advertised at most guest houses along the way, but whether you want to pay extra for this and risk being freezing cold (and naked) if the water isn't quite the right temperature is another matter. We certainly heard plenty of other guests squeal in surprise when their shower turned out to be not so hot after all, but probably depends where you go. That said, I managed to have one successful hot shower on my way back, so it can be okay. It's possibly almost easier to make do without, though for anyone with longer hair, especially girls, it will get pretty frustrating. Unfortunately the 'dry shampoo' powder I bought turned out to be absolutely useless, so I wouldn't recommend it, though this could have been user error... Similarly, the 'leaves' of dissolvable shampoo and body wash didn't work for me at all... On the other hand, the Sea to Summit hand sanitiser was great, and they should seriously market it as an instant body wash. Unlike those supermarket hand sanitisers, this one has a very robust twist cap, so you don't have to worry about it popping open and going everywhere in your bag, and the fragrance is really nice too. I found it was especially handy to use on feet at the end of the day, both in terms of keeping them clean and not-smelly. Moisturiser and lip balm are also essential.

First aid & medicine - the big question is probably whether to take altitude medication, i.e. diamox, and to be honest I'm not too sure if it's worthwhile as the side effects of taking it seem to be almost as affecting as the early symptoms of altitude sickness itself. Otherwise take your usual compact first aid kit, including plenty of band aids in case of blisters. Sunscreen is also a must because it's easy to get sunburnt at these altitudes.

Electrical stuff - first off, a head torch is an absolute must-have, as you won't want to be fumbling with a hand-held one when you have to make a trip to the pitch-black toilet. Here, an el-cheapo one will do as long as it's got fresh batteries, you can get them from the supermarket - so don't go spending $200+ at the outdoor shop... a light is a light. As for other electrical things, you can pay to get things charged but this gets increasingly expensive the higher you go, so if you can, try to ensure you have enough spare batteries for your camera the whole way, and turn it on sparingly. We read somewhere that the cold drains battery power so we slept with electronic stuff with us in our sleeping bags, and it all lasted pretty well - no idea what would have happened otherwise though!

Miscellaneous - because it doesn't fit anywhere else, I'll throw it in here - sunglasses. Take some. Also this will vary from person to person, but you'll definitely want something to occupy your time with, because there's a lot of waiting around on this trek, i.e. when you've arrived at your destination for the night and it's not even lunchtime yet. Crosswords, sudoku, brain teasers, playing cards, mini versions of board games, quizzes, conversation starter cards, books, a journal to write in, anything - just make sure you take something!

Getting organised

For the absolute easiest (but probably most expensive) option, you could book a fully organised trip from your home country, such as via Intrepid travel. While I'm sure these are great, it will almost certainly end up cheaper if you start the booking process at a local level, once you're in Nepal.

Either way, it's probably better to sort out a place to stay before you land in Kathmandu, especially if you're getting in late. We stayed at Annapurna Guest House, and it was pretty good - very reasonably priced, a range of rooms and friendly staff. The location is perfect as it's a short walk from the heart of the tourist district, Thamel, but far away enough to be relatively quiet.

Once you're in Kathmandu there are a million travel agents who can sell you trekking and activity packages to anywhere in Nepal. If you're really that keen to watch every dollar, then you can do the EBC trek even more cheaply by organising your own flights, permits, and hiring a guide and porter directly at Lukla. We took the lazier route and went with a local agency package, pretty much this exact one.

Prices will vary but our package ended up at about US$50 (or NZ$65) per person per day, which included the guide, porter, all meals, accommodation, domestic return flights and national park permits. I'm sure we could've spent more time asking around or bargaining it down to get a better deal, but to be honest it didn't seem like much, especially considering we usually spend much more than that on just accommodation alone on our trips elsewhere.


Food poisoning is the last you want when you're doing a 12 day walk, so take your guide's advice (well, our guide told us this anyway) and stick to vegetarian food for the duration of the walk, as meat is often days old by the time it's served...
A typical menu
Even with just vegetarian options I was surprised at the range of dishes on offer at most hostels, as I'd gotten the impression it was just going to be dal bhat (lentil curry) the whole way up. Unfortunately they tend to have the exact same menu items at every hostel, so it still does get a bit tedious.
Fried noodles, fried rice & veg curry
We found that fried rice and noodle dishes tended to be the best in terms of flavour everywhere we went, so they're a reliable pick. 'Italian' dishes like pizza and pasta are a bit more hit and miss, one time we had a 'garlic cheese pasta' which was actually quite tasty, and a couple of the pizzas we tried were also not too bad. Unfortunately, there were an equal number of misses which were nigh on inedible. Order at your own risk! Curries and dal bhats were also not too bad, though the latter (a trek staple) tended to be a bit bland. Momos or dumplings can also be alright, though these also get old quite quickly. 'Rara noodle soup' is good for lunch, and is pretty much 2 minute noodles. They were fine the first time around, but after threatening to come back up my esophagus during the whole walk up to Kala Pattar, I gave them a miss for the rest of the trip. Don't let that put you off though!

'Rara' noodle soup
Breakfast-wise you usually have a choice of toast, omelets, pancakes, porridge, 'Tibetan bread' and maybe even chapati. Toast is fairly reliable in that you'll get a piece of bread, though no guarantees that this will actually be crispy and toasted. Omelets are alright too, though tend to be pretty dry and thin. French toast, when you can get it, is actually pretty good. I'm not a porridge fan normally so didn't try this at all, but one thing I would not recommend is cornflakes with hot milk - seems like a good idea on a freezing cold morning, but after about two spoonfuls the milk cools right down and you have a cold mess in a bowl which looks like something your stomach has already had a fight with.

Condiments galore - the green chilli sauce is great for spicing up a bland dish
Another thing our guide warned us to stay away from was alcohol, as it doesn't help with altitude sickness, so we duly abstained until we'd finished the entire trek. So when our Dutch friend decided to indulge in a can of beer at Tengboche, everyone gaped like he'd committed a crime. Of course, hot drinks are a must and there's a few to pick from, including a range of teas, coffee, hot chocolate, and hot orange 'Tang', which is like hot, flat Fanta. Our drink of choice was usually masala tea or chai, which was similar to what we'd had in India - nice and warming.

Plenty of snacks on offer
In addition to what's on the menu, you can usually buy additional snacks and drinks, from Coke to Snickers bars and Pringles - all exorbitantly priced and exponentially more expensive the higher up you go, but obviously someone has figured out that tourists may well see fit to fork over some cash to reward themselves with a treat after conquering Everest Base Camp.

Another spectacular view
Apart from waking up every morning to spectacular mountain views, another great reason to do this trek are its health benefits - it's pretty much guaranteed that you'll lose weight during this trip. In fact, I lost probably about 4kg in just under two weeks, something which would not have been possible back home, with all its day to day food temptations and lack of exercise! Definitely a selling point the Nepal tourism people should capitalise on further...


A typical living/dining room
All the guest (or 'tea') houses are more or less set out the same way - there's a central dining/living area, with seating all the way along the walls. If you've ever organised a conference and gotten 'U-shaped' seating, that's pretty much it. There'll be a heater/stove or two in the middle, and everyone will inevitably huddle around these as soon as the sun goes down and it becomes freezing cold. Sometimes they also like to boil water on the stoves - in this instance they may have been being a bit ambitious...

Rooms usually consist of two single beds, and if you're lucky, there'll be a light (if you're even luckier, this will actually work). Toilets are almost always shared, and are 'Asian-style' - i.e. squat toilets, so I would recommend strengthening your thigh muscles at the gym before you go! Toilet paper goes in a separate box/bin, while liquid and, er, other organic matter can be 'flushed' with a scoop of water from a large drum, though this can often ice over so you can't rely on it that much... Overall, fairly basic stuff and you'll definitely want to use a dollop of hand sanitiser afterwards, but hey, at least you don't have to dig your own hole to go! 

Some stylish decor
I'll leave it at that for now, here's hoping I'll stay motivated enough to do a part two before another five months pass! And in case you missed it, our photos are saved here: the full set, the best of album, and the panoramas.