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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Trekking in Langtang - part 2

Once we climbed up to Kyangjin Gompa, the ridiculous mountain scenery really kicked in! This high alpine valley is surrounded by 20,000+ foot peaks… Langtang Lirung, Langtang 2, Ganchenpo, Yubra Himal, Yala Peak, Kinshung…… Huge white glaciers, groaning active icefalls, jagged fluted snow ridges with occasional avalanches whooshing down… You can just bundle up and sit outside, hot milk tea in hand, and gaze in any direction at the marvelous scene. Yaks wander and graze on the nearby “hills,” and local lodge owners chase down their horses and ponies to pack ‘em up with a load to carry up or down the canyon.

We stayed 3 nights at Kyangjin, because of the fine scenery and great dayhikes in the area. At over 12,500 feet, we had to be careful of altitude sickness, so we ascended a bit slower than the “average” trekker. Spending a night each at Syabrubensi, Syarpagaon, Ghoretabela, and Langtang allowed us to ascend about 1,500 feet per night. Our girls did great, with just a minor headache or two… probably from dehydration, not altitude! We really had to force them to drink lots of water!

A favorite dayhike climbs up 3,000 feet to Kyangjin Ri, a nearby 15,500 foot “hill” that’s decorated with many prayer flags. From the summit you can spot a few peaks over the border in Tibet, as well as get close-up views of the Langtang peaks and Yubra Himal icefall. From a science teacher’s perspective, the most amazing sight was the textbook-perfect set of lateral moraines flanking the receding glacier far below. Karen and I were up here ten years ago, with baby Eliza in a backpack… we look forward to viewing our old slides from that trip, and comparing the change in glacier length.

It is also amazing to see the growth in the “village” of Kyangjin Gompa. This place was originally a seasonal settlement, only inhabited in summertime when the yaks and other livestock are grazed up in the highest grassy slopes. 10 to 12 years ago, there were just a few small lodges in Kyangjin Gompa, and we felt a bit guilty to stay in the fancy new lodge with the big windows and “sunroom.” Today, that very same lodge looks old and tired, and is difficult to locate in the forest of 20 newer taller hotels that have sprung up everywhere! Again, we’ll have to check our photos from the late 90’s to compare the growth.

Trekking in December has also been a wonderful thing! There are just a few groups and individuals on the trail, and most of the lodges are virtually empty. In the late October/early November high season, it’s sometimes difficult to find a place to stay, especially with a family of nine! But up at Kyangjin, with such a proliferation of lodges, I can’t imagine that they ever fill up! How can all those small businesses and tea houses survive? The lack of trekkers has been great, but it also means that the proprietors of every local restaurant, village inn, or tea shop that we pass, literally beg us to stop in and stay. “Hello Sir! Please stop to take tea!?” “Hello Miss, do you try yak cheese?” “Please looking my shop take biscuit something?” It got a bit tiresome, but it’s totally understandable that they are aching for some income during the low season… and here comes a group of NINE people down the trail (ka-ching!) with kids who might beg for chocolate, biscuits, and tea!!!

The December weather has been stellar! It is below freezing every night, but we keep warm in our polypro long-johns, fuzzy hats and down jackets. Each day the sunshine brings balmy temps, and we sometimes hike in a single T-shirt… but in the shade, it’s chilly! Most of our guest houses fire up a wood stove in the evenings to boil water, as well as warm up the eating area. A few times we just hung out with the staff, and ate in the kitchen, as it was the warmest room.

The other amazing dayhike we did upstream of Kyangjin Gompa was an “ice-frenzy” stroll towards Langshisha Kharka. We wandered along, off trail, letting the kids lead the way. They led us directly to ice, ice and more ICE! Frozen creeks, puddles, and ponds… The main river was awesome with its frozen edges, and amazing ice clumps and stalactites forming on the river banks and boulders. The kids had a “smashing” time busting ice with their walking sticks, and tossing boulders here and there… We also had to do some tricky route-finding on the frozen alluvial fans, to avoid breaking through the crust into the moving water below.

It was hard to say goodbye to Kyangjin Gompa, and lose our hard-earned altitude, but returning to the jungly oak/rhododendron forest was wonderful. On our last morning, a helicopter flew in with some photographers who are working on a new coffee table book about the Himalaya. They were so kind and interested in our kids, and invited them in for a bit of “pilot practice.” The kids LOVED it, but the fun event foiled our planned early alpine start! We finally left the helicopter scene and did a super-long downhill day all the way to Lama Hotel. That covered about 2.5 days of uphill trekking in a single descent, and, at our leisurely bird-watching, yak-petting, red panda searching, ice-busting pace, it took quite a long time. We eventually had to pull out the headlamps and finish in the dark… fortunately it’s December, and darkness hits at just 6pm. Our “late night arrival” wasn’t that late…

Our final 2 days dropped down into the deep Langtang khola canyon, through jungly bamboo forests and dripping vine-covered trees… and then back UP, of course, to Thulo Syabru, a wonderful ridge-back village with stupendous views from both sides of each house. From the front windows or balconies, you can gaze back up towards Langtang, and out the back window your view is the entire Ganesh Himal and a few snowy peaks on the Tibetan border. We LOVED Thulo Syabru and our wonderful hosts at the Hotel Lama.

Our final day was an exquisite traverse from Thulo Syabru, through Brabal, and finally down to the dusty road (ack!) at Barkhu. This bit of trail, once the main entry point from Dhunche to start the Langtang trek, now sees much less traffic… and that’s a real shame! It passes through such lovely forest, crosses lush verdant creeks and bridges, and surprises you constantly with dramatic views… Most trekkers head both up and down the more direct and “efficient” route along the river canyon from Syabrubensi, but doing that misses our two favorite sections of trail! By far our favorite, less traveled, more scenic routes in Langtang were the high trails above the dark cold canyon bottom. The Syarpagaon traverse, and the Thulo Syabru/Dhunche traverse rank up there on our “top ten list” of sweetest trekking days in the Himalaya.

Oh yes… as a fine conclusion to an exquisite trek, we were rewarded with the bus ride from H#%*@ back to Kathmandu! The usual 8 hour puke-fest became a 13-hour marathon, as the cliff-hanger road was blocked by a broken down truck. We had to walk around that mess, follow the dusty road for several miles to find food, then leap back onto our passing bus later in the day as it roared through Kalikasthan… The driver was a bit angry and annoyed with the whole thing, and drove like a maniac, trying to make up the lost time. It was a wild ride! A much better option, if we’d had more time, would be to walk all the way back to Kathmandu via Helambu… Next time!

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