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Types of Treks
In Nepal there are numerous ways to arrange a trek because of two major factors. Firstly, inexpensive (by Western standards) professional and nonprofessional labour is available to carry loads and to work as guides and camp staff. Secondly, you can almost always find supplies and accommodation locally because there are people living in even the most remote trekking areas.
The many possible ways of trekking can be categorised into four approaches: backpacking, teahouse treks, self arranged treks and treks with a trekking company. There is a lot of overlap among these, because many aspects of each trekking style spill over into the next. A backpacking trek that stays a few nights in hotels has many of the attributes of a teahouse trek. A teahouse trek with porters starts to become a self-arranged trek. A self- arranged trek that uses the services of a trekking agency in Nepal is similar to the trekking company approach.
The backpacking approach of a light pack, stove, freeze-dried food and a tent really is not an appropriate way to trek in Nepal. So much food is available in hill villages that it doesn't make much sense to try to be totally self-sufficient while trekking. This is true throughout Nepal except in the high mountains above 4500 metres. Backpackers violate two cardinal rules for travellers in Nepal. Because they are self-sufficient, they do not contribute to the village economy. Also, they must do so many camp chores that they do not have the time or energy to entertain the villagers that will gather to watch them.
At higher altitudes, however, the backpacking approach works. Depending on the terrain and local weather conditions, villages are found up to 4000 metres, but above this there isn't much accommodation available except in tourist areas such as Annapurna Sanctuary and Everest. It is also difficult to arrange to hire porters who have the proper clothing and footwear for travelling in cold and snow. If you plan to visit these regions, you may wish to alter your trekking style and utilise a backpacking or mountaineering approach to reach high passes or the foot of remote glaciers.
A good solution is to leave much of your gear behind at a temporary "base camp" in the care of a hotel or trustworthy sherpa. You can then spend a few days carrying a reduced load of food and equipment on your own. This will provide you with the best of both worlds: an enriching cultural experience that conforms to the standards and traditions of the country in the lowlands, and a wilderness or mountaineering experience in the high mountains.
The Nepali word bhatti translates well as "teahouse". It is a bit pretentious to call some of these village establishments a hotel, but the Nepalese use of English translates restaurant or eating place as "hotel". Since the word hotel has, therefore, been pre-empted, Nepalese use the word "lodge" for sleeping place or hotel. Thus, in the hills of Nepal a "hotel" has food, but may not provide a place to sleep, while a "lodge" always offers accommodation. Many innkeepers specify the services they provide by calling their establishments "Hotel & Lodge". To avoid all this semantic confusion, most people use hotel, lodge and teahouse interchangeably. In reality you can almost always find both accommodation and food at any trailside establishment.
The most popular way to trek in Nepal for both Nepalese and Westerners is to travel from teahouse to teahouse. Hotel accommodation is most readily available in the Khumbu (Everest) region, the Langtang area and the entire Annapurna region. In these areas you can operate with a bare minimum of equipment and rely on teahouses for food and shelter. In this manner, it will cost from US$3 to US$10 a day, depending on where you are and how simply you can live and eat. It becomes much more expensive at high altitudes and in very remote areas.
Most Thakali inns (found along the Pokhara to Jomsom Trek) have bedding available - usually a cotton-filled quilt. Sometimes the bedding has the added attraction of lice and other bed companions. Bring along your own sheet or sleeping bag to provide some protection against these bugs. During the busy trekking seasons in October to November and March to April, it may be difficult to find bedding every night on the Jomsom Trek. Bedding is not usually available at hotels on the Everest trek or around Annapurna, so on these treks you should carry your own sleeping bag.
Although many hotels in the hills are reasonably comfortable, the accommodation in some places may be a dirty, often smoky, home. Chimneys are rare, so a room on the 2nd floor of a house can turn into an intolerable smokehouse as soon as someone lights the cooking fire in the kitchen below. Often it is possible to sleep on porches of houses, but your gear is then less secure. The most common complaint among trekkers who rely on local facilities is about smoky accommodation.
By arranging your food and accommodation locally, you can move at your own pace and set your own schedule. You can move faster or slower than others and make side trips not possible with a large group. You can spend a day photographing mountains, flowers or people - or you can simply lie around for a day. Hotels provide a special meeting place for trekkers from throughout the world. You are free (within the limits imposed by your trekking permit) to alter your route and change your plans to visit other out-of-the-way places as you learn about them. You will have a good opportunity to see how the people in the hills of Nepal live, work and eat and will probably develop at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Nepali language.
You are, however, dependent on facilities in villages or in heavily trekked regions. Therefore you must trek in inhabited areas and on the better known routes. You may need to alter your schedule to reach a certain hotel for lunch or dinner. You can miss a meal if there is no hotel when you need one or if the hotel you are counting on is closed. A few packets of biscuits in your backpack are good insurance against these rough spots. Most of the major routes are well documented, but they are also well travelled. A hotel can be out of food if there are many other trekkers or if you arrive late. You may have to change your planned destination for the day when you discover that the lunch you ordered at an inn will take a very long time to prepare. You will usually make this discovery only after you have already waited an hour or so. It is wise to be aware of these kinds of problems and to prepare yourself to deal with them.
If you deviate from popular routes, be prepared to fend for yourself at times. If, however, you carry food, cooking pots and a tent to use even one night, you have already escalated beyond the teahouse approach into a more complex form of trekking with different problems.
A third style of trekking is to gather sherpas, porters, food and equipment and take off on a trek with all the comforts and facilities of an organised trek. On such a trek you camp in tents, porters carry your gear, sherpas set up camp and cook and serve meals. You carry a backpack with only a water bottle, camera and jacket.
Trekkers who opt for this approach, particularly with a small group of friends, often have a rewarding, enriching and enjoyable trip. You can use a trekking company in Nepal to make some or all of the arrangements, though you may have to shop for an agency that suits you. Some Nepalese trekking companies offer equipment for hire, some will arrange a single sherpa or porter and some will undertake only the entire arrangements for a trek.
If you want to have everything organised in advance, you can contact a Nepalese trekking company by mail or fax and ask them to make arrangements for your trek. There are more than 300 trekking companies in Kathmandu that will organise treks for a fee and provide all sherpas, porters and, if necessary, equipment. Unless you have a good idea of what you want, it will require a huge volume of correspondence to provide you with the information you require, to determine your specific needs, to define your precise route and itinerary and to negotiate a price that both parties understand. Mail takes up to three weeks each way to and from Australia, the Americas or Europe, so it's better to use fax or e-mail. Be specific in your communications and be sure that the trekking company understands exactly who will provide what equipment. It is most embarrassing to discover on the first night that someone forgot the sleeping bags.
One solution is to go to Nepal and simply sort out the details in an hour or two of face to face negotiations with a trekking company. You should be prepared to spend a week or so (less, if you are lucky) in Kathmandu settling these details. An alternative to endless correspondence with Nepal is to use a trek operator in your own country.
Trekking with a Trekking Company
Companies specializing in trekking can organise both individual and group treks. One major advantage to dealing with someone close to home is that it's easy to communicate by phone and the agent can assist you with travel to and from Nepal.
On an arranged trek the group must stay generally on its prearranged route and, within limits, must meet a specific schedule. This means that you may have to forego an appealing side trip or festival and, if you are sick, you will probably have to keep moving with the rest of the group. You also may not agree with a leader's decisions if the schedule must be adjusted because of weather, health, political or logistical considerations.
You will be trekking with people you have not met before. Although some strong friendships may develop, there may also be some in the party you would much rather not have met. For some people, this prospect alone rules out their participation in a group trek. The major drawback, however, will probably be the cost. Organised treks usually start at US$100 per person per day of the trek. One of the major expenses is the services of a Western leader who acts as guide, cultural interpreter and social director. On the positive side, by fixing the destination and schedule in advance, all members of the group will have prepared themselves for the trip and should have proper equipment and a clear understanding of the schedule and terrain. Read the brochures and other material prepared by the agent to see if it is likely to attract the type of people you'd get along with.
Most prearranged treks cater to people to whom time is more important (within limits) than money. For many, the most difficult part of planning a trek is having the time to do so. These people are willing to pay more to avoid wasting a week of their limited vacation sitting around in Kathmandu making arrangements or waiting along the way for a spare seat on a plane. A trekking agent usually tries to cram as many days in the hills as is possible into a given time span. Trekking agents make reservations for hotels and domestic flights well in advance. Thus theoretically, these hassles are also eliminated.
Because the group carries its own food for the entire trek, a variety of meals is possible. This may include canned goods from Kathmandu and imported food bought from expeditions or other exotic sources. A skilled cook can prepare an abundant variety of tasty Western-style food. The meals a good sherpa cook can prepare in an hour over a kerosene stove would put many Western cafes to shame.
A group trek carries tents for the trekkers. This convenience gives you a place to spread out your gear without fear that someone will pick it up, and probably means that you will have a quiet night. In addition, a tent also gives you the freedom to go to bed when you choose. You can retire immediately after dinner to read or sleep, or sit up and watch the moon rise as you discuss the day's outing.
Money and staff hassles rarely surface on an arranged trek. The sirdar is responsible for making minor purchases along the way and ensures a full complement of porters every day. Unless you are particularly interested, or quite watchful, you may never be aware that these negotiations are taking place.
A group trek follows a tradition and routine that trekkers and mountaineers have developed and refined for more than 50 years. You can travel in much the same manner as the approach marches described in The Ascent of Everest, Annapurna and Americans on Everest, a feature not possible with other styles. If your interest in the Himalaya was kindled through such books, you still have the opportunity to experience this delightful way to travel. There are many reasons why these expeditions went to all the trouble and expense to travel as they did.
It is an altogether refreshing experience to have all the camp and logistics problems removed from your responsibility so you are free to enjoy fully the land and the people which have attracted mountaineers for a century.