So you decided to go to Himalayas. Great. It is an awesome place for ultimate adventure and great photographic opportunities. Wether you are landscape or "people" photographer or just adventurer, you certainly going to be satisfied. Himalayas offer something for everybody, every gender or age. Environments are mesmerising, people very kind and friendly. If you are not into photography and you just like adventure, outdoors and you never been to Himalayas, this article will still give you some insights. If it’s your first time in Nepal and Himalayas, you certainly going to leave with lot of memories and most probably with resolution to come back for more.
This is going to be 3 part series. I discuss planning and general travel tips in this post. In the second part I will be talking about photography specific topics and last part is going to be dedicated to safety and health concerns that might arise on high altitude trips and it will applicable to any other high altitude destination. So are any sections that are not Nepal/Himalayas specific.
It is important to do your research. You already started by reading this article however, don’t stop here. Himalayas are very popular destination and there are plenty of blogs and articles that people post about their trips. Google images are great source for scouting locations that give you an idea how the environment looks like, what you can expect to see or what kinds of photographs you might take. Also, it is important to research the logistics of your trip. Is it going to be your only destination or a part of larger trip. That becomes important for example if you are taking flights to Lukla or Pokhara. Especially Lukla flights are very sensitive on weather and they can turn the flight around mid way if weather is too bad for landing. In worst case scenario you miss the connecting international flight. To be safe, always plan for day or two extra.
The main question you will have to answer, is your destination. There are popular and quite busy trekking routes like Annapurna base camp trek or Everest base camp trek. There are also less crowded areas like Rolwaling or Kanchenjunga area. You may opt for Mustang, which is restricted area in Nepal, that requirers a special permit. More adventurous of you might choose a peak climbing. More popular treks are going to have better choice of higher standard of accommodation but also more tourists along the way. These are all aspects that you should consider. Different people have different preferences. By far the most popular routes are Everest Base Camp trek and Annapurna Base Camp trek, latter being little easier.
Another decision you will have to make is time of the year you want to visit. There are two main trekking seasons in a year. First one is from end of March till mid May and second is from early September till mid November. These two timeframes are considered as the high season. The weather in Himalayas is at its best but also trekking routes are more crowded. Jun, July and August are the months of monsoon season and this is probably the worst time of the year to visit. There is lots of rain, cloudy dark skies, slippery roads. Lots of tea house staff tend to leave their high altitude post and come down to city for this off-season period. Some of the routes may not even be accessible during this time of the year. It is better to avoid monsoon season and plan for more suitable dates for travel. On the contrary even though winter months are considered off season the trekking can be actually quite pleasant. Routes are less busy, quite often the weather very sunny but also much colder especially during nights. It might be reasonable for trekking but peak climbing in winter might be difficult or even impossible in some cases. Two of my four trips to Nepal were in month of December. I can say this is time of the year that suits me a lot.
Third quite important decision is weather you going to trek alone or you employ a trekking guide. Although most popular routes can be done on your own with help of map or fellow trekkers, you might want to think about it a little. In late 2014 an edge of the cyclone above India hit Annapurna area in Himalayas. About 40 people perished in avalanches or got lost in the mountains due to bad weather. Big chunk of that bunch were tourists without guides or very inexperienced porters. A good trekking guide may be immensely helpful. Experienced guide knows mountains well, can read the route or predict possible dangerous situation. That can be helpful especially if you find yourself in edgy situation as mentioned above. From a photography point of view, a guide can take you to places where other tourists might not get just by themselves. He can translate for you or act as fixer. Lastly, you get a friend for a lifetime. Also, employing a porter is a good idea. Certainly you can carry your own backpack and camera gear but you soon find it very uncomfortable to run around with all that load and take pictures. Remember, bags get heavier the higher you go. When porter takes your main backpack you are fee to run around with your camera as you please. And you are giving somebody a job. In low income country like Nepal with scarce job opportunities you will be helping somebody a lot.
I personally always use guide and porter services. I can recommend
I used all of them and I was very happy with the service provided. Price-wise there is not too much difference between trekking companies. If you find some prices significantly cheaper you should be careful and double-check the company or guide from other sources. One thing I always look for is experience and above mentioned companies/guides have plenty.
This is going to be compromise. Always. Main thing to consider is weight. You need to pack everything you might need on the trip while keeping the size and weight as low as possible. That goes for clothing, trekking gear as well as your photography equipment. Even if you engage a service of a porter, their weight limit is around 30kg. That is a lot, especially in high altitude. The more lightweight and nimble you can be, the more likely you will enjoy the trip and take more images. Remember that a trekking day can be 5 to 8 hours of walking in sometimes difficult terrain. Too heavy backpack can be taxing. Your energy levels will deplete faster and your ankles and knees might not like it either.
Few times I got asked wether it is better to buy trekking apparel at home or in Kathmandu. In my humble opinion, it is better to buy everything you need at your home country. While there is plenty of trekking shops scattered around Thamel area in Kathmandu, their goods are mostly cheap knock offs of branded apparel, notably North Face. Stores are often quite dusty from the street and generally they may look rather discouraging. Some of local stores are actually quite good. I remember I bought some accessories at store called Sonam, which I think is a better quality local store. There are few branded stores with originals however you will soon realize that the prices are not far from those you can find at home. So, my advice is get what you need at home and only buy stuff in Kathmandu when you need something urgently or you have forgotten some important piece of gear. it is a good idea to compile a list and reference that while packing. That way you can be sure you don’t miss an important piece and you can make decision to rent the gear if it is something you going to use once. That is also a possibility. Some stores in Kathmandu offer renting services and there are places that rent gear as their sole business. For example on my peak climbing trips I always rented climbing gear as well as down jacket. I live in Singapore and down jacket is pretty useless there :)
In case you are doing peak climbing, you need to double check with trekking agency what climbing equipment they can provide. Is it part of the package or extra cost? How much the rental would be? All good questions to ask. Other gear you might need includes sleeping mats, sleeping bags, first aid kit, trekking poles, water bottles etc. Again, ask the trekking agency if they provide the essentials. Some of them even have a recommended packing list on their websites. Here is an example of packing list I use for my peak climbing trips:
There is one important consideration. In case you travel to your destination by plane (esp Lukla), bare in mind that there is a weight limit for your baggage and they seem to be very strict about it. Lukla has been named as world's most dangerous airport and you will see why. Once you are close to the approach, you will understand that weight has to be strictly controlled. The plane flies through valley quite close to the mountains. And turbulence is much stronger in smaller plane. Lastly, the plane has to land on 250m runway which is on 10-15 degree angle uphill. Ask your trekking guide about weight restrictions.
Arriving to Nepal
Most of you will be arriving by air flying to Tribuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. After you disembark the plane you will gather at immigration point. You can process your visa at your home country if Nepal has a embassy or High Commission there but it is possible to get a visa on arrival. You need to do your research if your country is eligible for Visa on Arrival. After you pay your dues you can go and pick up your luggage. Almost all of trekking agencies will arrange a transportation from airport to your hotel. This is a good thing as it may sometimes get very hectic at the airport when drivers and porters literally fight to get clients. Just be mindful of your belongings. Some of them can get pretty aggressive wanting to carry your backpack against your will. I usually don't let it of my hands. It takes about 15-30 minutes (depending on traffic) to reach your hotel. I assume (and almost all visitors do) you stay in Thamel, which is a central district in Kathmandu where most of the hotels and trekking shops are located. At this point your trekking company/guide will brief you about what is going to happen next. Usually you will have a day or two at your disposal to explore Kathmandu before you leave for your trekking/climbing adventure. This is also a time to review your gear and buy what you have forgotten or what you didn’t consider as necessary. Local currency is Nepali Rupee. You can change some on airport but I think you can get better rates in the city. It is good idea to have some bank notes ready for porters, taxi drivers etc. Tipping is very common in Nepal and I would say expected. Once you leave Kathmandu your adventure really starts. Depending on your trip you will be trekking from 3-8 hours a day and then overnight in hotels, tea houses or even tents (if your trip is more adventurous). All you need to do is to open your eyes, mind, hear and enjoy.
This is the end of this first part. In the next section I will be discussing the photography related topics like gear, shooting, gear care etc. So if you are interested, stay tuned.