A Long Walk in the Woods
The shared tuk-tuk careened to a halt in a dust cloud that hung motionless in the hot air. I got out carefully and pulled on my backpack as I paid the driver 20 IRs (40 cents), and looked around. I was finally in Luxman Jhula (aka Rishikesh), India and I was tired and hungry. I pushed my way through the crowds as I made my way down the narrow winding alley towards one of the many cable bridges that cross the holy Ganges River. The crowds at the bridge were even thicker, which was further compounded by the lazily cows blocking the narrow egress and the occasional Indian family on a scooter that felt the need to ride across the pedestrian bridge.
Note that this area is now part of the new Nepal Great Himalaya Trail.
I was bone tired, but knew that I was almost done with another long and painful outdoor chapter. Shortly I was across the bridge and heading down the narrow main street in search of an angel. And there she was. Cristina was standing in the middle of the road with her arms spread. I walked up to her feeling a little self conscious; it had been over a month since I had seen her last. I overcame my inhibitions and hugged her. She then shrieked and backed off. I wondered if I smelled as bad as I looked. It had been at least six days since I had taken a shower or changed my clothes. And then she began to pinch and poke me while marveling at how skinny I was. She said my face looked narrow and that she could feel my bones sticking out. She then balled her fists, placed them on her hips and then accused me of not eating enough. At first I felt scolded and then I began to laugh uncontrollably. Eating was in fact the issue. I had not eaten more than a single meal a day for the past six days, and those meals had consisted of either bland Dahl baht (rice and lentils) or in one case an opulent meal of three hard boiled eggs. Plus on each day I had generally walked for 10-12 hours at elevation, while carrying my backpack. So yes, perhaps I had lost a little weight. But then again, the price for that weight loss had been a fair one.
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It all stemmed from a constant statement that I hear when I am in Kathmandu, Nepal. It seems that all trekkers start a conversation by saying that they have come to Nepal to find a trek that is off the beaten path, and then inevitably they end up on one of the mass-market treks such as the Annapurna Circuit, Annapurna Base Camp, Everest Base Camp, or Langtang. There are also a few off-shout treks that are centered around these main ones, but in no case are you ever alone or beyond reach of a guesthouse. Yet I had just found and competed one of the much sought after remote treks that these travelers dream of. I had done the Rara Lake Trek. Yet I did it for a price.
Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $$
The first thing that you must understand if you ever consider the Rara Lake Trek is that the basic Nepal Trekking assumptions do not hold true.
The first false assumption is that logistics will be pretty simple. For Rara Lake there are no simple solutions. You cannot fly from Kathmandu to Jumla (the nearest large village). You can however fly from Nepalgunj (southwest Nepal), but you have to show up in Nepalgunj to buy your ticket the day before because the flights may or may not depart. It all comes down to supply and demand. Furthermore, at the time of my trek, only Agri Air was flying to/from Jumla. Yet to get to Nepalgunj you will need to take a crap Nepali bus that will probably take 18-20 hrs (regardless of what the optimistic ticket seller tells you). Alternatively you could simply take a longer bus ride to Surkhet and then spend 10 days walking to Jumla. In any event, getting to Jumla was not as simple as one might hope.
The second assumption is that a local trekking map will be available in Kathmandu. Not so. The closest trekking map is the one that includes the Upper Dolpa District, but that is to the east of the Jumla District and of no help. The alternative that I chose was to purchase a discontinued map called “Transport Infrastructure Map – Humla, Jumla, Mugu, Bajura, Kalikot” that was published jointly with the Government of Nepal and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (scanned section included on the Maps & Facts page). It sucked. Most of the trails were not marked. Only about one in ten villages were marked. Passes were not marked. And finally, most of the village names listed do not match what the locals call them. As a result I pretty much had to make my way around by pointing and repeating, “Rara” over and over to locals on my way to the lake and “Jumla” on my way back. There is a rumor that you can buy sectional topographical maps for the region somewhere in Kathmandu, but I never found them.
The third false assumption is that the trekking trails are always well defined and easy to follow. Not for the Rara Lake Trek. There are some main trails that conform to the norm in Nepal since they are used by donkey trains to haul supplies and by locals going to market. Yet many of these trails don’t apply to the Rara Lake Trek unless you want to walk from village to village and out of your intended way (adding many more days to the trek). Also at least half of the trails that lead to or away from Rara Lake are tiny and seldom used. In fact the route I used, on the third day, to reach Rara Lake followed narrow foot paths in a vast pine forest and then simply disappeared into numerous trails that were only occasionally used by local wood collectors. In many cases I had to guess in which direction to head and then on my way back I missed the return trail at Murma all together. As a result I had to walk twice as far, had to cross two additional very, very steep passes, and in many cases had to ask directions from local herdsman. At no point was the trail to Rara Lake or back to Jumla marked or clear.
The fourth false assumption is that you always see other western trekkers. Not on the Rara Lake Trek. I didn’t see a single western trekker. I did meet a Nepali trekker on the fourth day. He was with a large party of porters and had been trekking for 17 days. He was crossing from the west and heading to the east with no apparent objective in mind. I also established from the Jumla shop keeper that rented me a cot in his storage room on my last day, that I was the first trekker of the year. He confided that he also acted as a guide because of his English skills, but had not had a customer in two years and was desperate.
The fifth false assumption is that English will be spoken in the countryside. Even when I walked from Jiri to Namche Bazaar a few years ago, I managed to find a few guesthouse owners, shop keepers, and small children that had a basic understanding of English. On this trek the total of all the locals that I met that understood at least a few words of English were one donkey driver on the second day, one school teacher on the fourth day, and a young porter on the fifth day. There were more people that spoke English in Jumla, but that didn’t help me while trekking.
Restaurants & Shops:
The sixth false assumption is that there will be a few trail restaurants or shops to along the way. Not on the Rara Trek, at least not outside of Jumla. On the entire trek I did not find a single enterprising soul selling chocolate bars or Coca Cola. Fortunately I had brought along 5 energy bars and a number of sweetened juice mixes so that at no time did I have to drink plain, unsweetened water, but a supply of over-priced Mars Bars or Snickers Bars would have been much appreciated. As for prepared meals, forget it. In every case the best I could do was a serving of Dahl Baht as the dinner meal. Breakfast consisted of a cup of tea and lunch was non-existent. However, I did discover on the afternoon of my last day that many of the ramshackle huts on passes did in fact serve meals (yes more Dahl Bat, or in one case I purchased 3 hard boiled eggs). So if you take the time to enter the dimly lit huts that leave their door open, you may find additional food, or perhaps a growling dog. Victory goes to the bold!
The seventh false assumption is that there will be a plethora of guesthouses along the trek. Wrong again. I did manage to spend my first night in a homestay, but first I had to walk around the village making hand sighs for sleep, eat, and money. Eventually I was shown to the home of an elderly couple who didn’t speak a single word of English. On the second day I found a house/shop/hotel in a small one-lane town. The storage room above the shop doubled as a hotel room. Once again no English was spoken. I spent the third night in my tent and the fourth in a brightly painted house with the words “Well Com” painted above the door. I never really established if it was a guesthouse or not, but stuck around for a meal, among all the local drunks, until I was shown a bed. Again in the storage room, but in this case I shared the room with the owner and one of the drunks who couldn’t find his way home in the dark. When back in Jumla for the night before my exit flight I did find 6 guesthouses, however, they all wanted a fee of 400-500 Rs for the night. Clearly they were taking advantage of the fact that I was a westerner. The rooms were dumps and the only occupants were dirty locals that were not paying anything close to the fee being asked. I ended up sleeping in the loft of a local shop keeper who charged me 200 Rs for the palette bed, a plate of Dahl Bat, and an hour of his begging for money, clothing, and support.
The eighth false assumption is that there will be some basic hygiene on the trek. Forget it. In no homestay, guesthouse, or hotel did I find a toilet or faucet. In each case the toilet was simply the outdoors, even in the heart of Jumla, or in a few villages it was confined to a communal outhouse located at the end of town. On my first homestay night I asked for the location of the toilet but they simply looked puzzled. Ultimately, after imitating a man peeing, they pointed me to a back door. I opened the door and found myself in a small yard next to the main village lane. Not the most private toilet. I found that getting up in the night, to go out and pee in the dark, was actually the best option since the darkness provided a measure of privacy. Further, washing was always restricted to the black plastic hose that fed from a local cold spring and provided the village or farmhouse with a single public source of drinking and washing water. Showers simply didn’t exist until the monsoons started.
The ninth assumption is getting back to the city. It is always an issue when one finishes a trek because at that stage all we care about is getting back to civilization, a hot shower, and food. Getting out of Jumla proved complicated as most things Nepali. I arrived at the Jumla airport as the sun came up on my sixth day. I was early because I spent the night in a local shop keeper’s loft and needed to go pee. I could not find the nerve to just do it in the main lane of Jumla, in front of the shop, because of all the locals going about their morning business. Yes, many of them simply peed on the side of the road, brushed their teeth in the street, or wandered around a corner to squat. I needed a more private solution so was out of bed and on the road early in order to reach the less traveled path near the airport. Once my desperate business was done I visited the Agri Air shack and was told to sit and wait until the 8am flight. Then at 6:50 I noticed activity. I asked if I could pay for a ticket and then had to fight it out with the young stud that controlled tickets. He wanted a ridiculous price in Nepali Rupees for the ticket (government price fixed at $83 US). I refused to pay so my only option was to pay the exact fare in US dollars. After more yelling while locals also yelled and struggled to get seats I gave up the battle and paid $85, and let him keep the change. I then rushed through the one-room airport to the waiting plane as it started up its second engine. I was then pulled off the flight with a number of other passengers as luggage was thrown to the runway and other bags thrown in. I returned to the airport office area and complained to an older man with a walkie-talkie that looked official. He yelled something to the pilot and the ticket guy who were now arguing on the runway. After a few minutes I was directed to return to the plane. Once again I was half on when I was directed off again. This time I sat down on one of the luggage carts next to the plane while the debate continued. The third time was the charm as I was again directed onto the plane and my backpack was thrown in after me. Forty-five minutes later we were in Nepalgunj. Fortunately I didn’t have to worry about claiming luggage on this flight. I exited the plane with my backpack, caught a rickshaw to town. Reclaimed the bag I had left at a hotel, and then took a rickshaw to India and hopped onto a 23 hour crap bus ride to Rishikesh.
So there I was. It had been at least seven days since I had left Kathmandu. I had eaten 4 plates of Dahl Baht, 6 energy bars, and 3 hard boiled eggs and drank 7 cups of tea on the trek(plus an additional 3 hard boiled eggs on the bus ride to Rishikesh). So perhaps I had lost a little weight? But hell! I had done what so many trekkers dream of doing. I had done a trek that was off the beaten path.
There is one ‘trekking in Nepal’ assumption that did hold true though. That the landscape on the trek would be beautiful, and it was. Half of the area covered was terraced agricultural fields or pastured land. The other half was pine forested and rugged. The lake itself was green, clean, and not inhabited. It was surrounded by forested hills and a backdrop of high, white-tipped mountains that reminded me of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Ultimately I think it was worth the calories.