Monday, 15 April 2013 18:45
Reaching the trailhead
Makalu Base Camp trek
Returning from trailend
Lonely planet : Trekking in the Nepal himalayas.
Note : The LP guide refers to this trek as a camping trek as of 2009 (when it was published). This trek can currently be done as a tea-house trek. The lodges in this trek are very rustic and there are just 1 or 2 lodges that are open in each of the villages en route. Do not expect anything more than dal-bhat at these lodges.
One just needs a TIMS permit for this trek. As of 13th Oct (or 14th Oct) the cost of TIMS permit for SAARC nationals has been reduced to 6$ for FIT (free independent trekkers) and 3$ if one goes through an agency. The catch though is that the TIMS card can be got only at KTM/Pokhara. There are no trekking agencies in Dharan/Hile/Khandbari or Tumlingtar which could arrange for TIMS card (when I searched).
There is Makalu Barun Conservation area fees which one has to pay at a checkpost in Sedua (if checked). This is about 100-200Rs for SAARC nationals.
Possible Extensions to this trip
One can continue onto the Ice Col trek from Makalu base camp, via Sherpani col, east/west col, Ambhu Lhaptsa to Chukung and onto the EBC route. This is a fairly popular route but one has to be well equipped with crampons, 300 m of rope. One would also need the assistance of a climbing guide. This crossing takes around 5 days and one will have to be self-sufficient for these 5 days.
One can cross-over to Kanchenjunga from Yangle Kharkha via the Lumba Sumba pass to Chyamthang. However, this is a remote route and will require the assistance of a local guide. Very few guides would have actually done this route.
Getting to/from the trailhead (Khandbari) :
This is as arduous a task as the trek itself.
Coming from Kathmandu : The best way (most comfortable) to get to this is to take a flight (Buddha air) to Tumlingtar from Kathmandu. The alternatives are an overnight bus journey to Dharan which would take about 12-14 hours or a flight to flight to Biratnagar followed by a 1 hr drive to Dharan by bus/micro-van
Coming from India : The 2 closest access points for border crossing on this trek for indians are Kakaribitta or Jogbani.
To get to Kakaribitta either take a direct flight to Bagdogra and then a bus to Panitanki (Indian side of the border) from the airport. If you dont get a direct bus from the airport take a rickshaw to Bihar mod (about 1-2 km away) and you would find plenty of buses going to Panitanki (<45 mins). If you are coming by train you would most likely be taking a train from Howrah to New Jalpaiguri (NJP). From NJP you can get to siliguri and then to Panitanki (< 1.5 hours by bus). After crossing over the border at Panitanki one reaches Kakaribitta. Buses from here to dharan take about 3-4 hours.
To get to Jogbani one can take an overnight train from Howrah (Howrah-Jogbani express). The other way is to take a train from Delhi (or Muzaffarpur) (Seemanchal express) to Jogbani. There is a direct train from Bangalore to Muzaffarpur. However, note the train running days (as trains may run only on certain days of the week). One can walk across the border to the Nepal side from where it is a 15 min bus ride to Biratnagar, followed by another 1 hour bus ride to Dharan.
I took a train to Howrah (from bangalore) and then an overnight train to Jogbani (from Howrah) and then reached Dharan by bus.
Dharan to Khandbari : There are direct buses from Dharan to Khandbari. It is a day long journey of about 10-12 hours. Usually these buses would start early in the morning and would go through Basantpur, Chainpur to Khandbari. The buses do cross a river (and I mean not on a bridge). If there are rains or if the water in the river is too much then there wont be direct buses.
I took a micro to Hile and stayed there overnight. From there I took a jeep to Legua (the point where there is a river crossing). There is a small boat which ferried me across the river and from the other side there were jeeps again heading to Khandbari via Tumlingtar. This was a day long journey.
Tumlingtar to Khandbari
For those coming by flight to Tumlingtar, Khandbari is less than an hour's drive. You could even walk this if you want to.
Summary : On 12th evening, on reaching Khandbari, I stayed in a homestay at Naya Bazaar. The family was extremely hospitable. The next morning after a sumptuous breakfast (dal bhat) I walked about 30 mins to Mani Bhanjyang. As it was a Saturday, and with just a week to go for the festival of Dashain, I saw a huge number villagers, dressed colourfully, walking from different villages to the Saturday market at Mani Bhanjyang to do their Dashain shopping. As I knew I would see a number of villagers along the way I decided to take the jeep from Mani Bhanjyang to Num. It was a long waiting time (around 3 hours) before the jeep to Ranidunga (1 hour before Num) got filled and we got going around 1 p.m. The road is essentially a jeep track and with the rains it becomes extremely slushy. The 2-3 hour jeep ride is a journey from hell. I recommend other trekkers to walk this distance if possible. Having reached ranidunga around 4 p.m we decided to walk further. I say we, as I met 2 other folks on the jeep. One guy, was a person from Sedua, who knew a bit of Hindi and hence was conversing with me during the jeep journey. He invited me to his home. The other person happened to be a 29 year old mountaineer (climbing sherpa) from Tashigaon. The first peak he head climbed was Mount Everest -:). Anyway, he has climbed Mt Everest 2 times, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Broad Peak etc. "Welcome to Nepal - the land of the Sherpas" I said to myself. I decided to accompany these folks further. It is a nice descent to the village of Num (1500M). Keeping pace with these 2 fleet footed folks (especially the climber) was a challenge. It was about 5 p.m when we reached Num. We decided we wanted to go further. It was a very steep descent from Num to the bridge across the Arun Kosi. Mind you after Num there are no tea houses (unlike the EBC/Annapurna/Langtang/helambu trail) save one small shop which, if open, might offer you some noodles. By the time we made the vertiginous (as mentioned in the LP trekking guide) to the bridge across Arun Kosi it was over 6 p.m and getting really dark. It had also been drizzling for the past hour or so making the descent slippery. There is a new "main bridge" across the river - which was closed/blocked. Beside this is a rickety old bridge - which we used to cross the river. It was really dark and as I made my way up the steep ascent it started pouring heavily, making my heavy backpack heavier -:). With the help of flashlights and head torch we made our way up and decided to stay put at the first tea-house which we reached around 7 p.m after 30-45 mins of steep ascent.
I started early on 13th morning (around 6 a.m) along with my friend who invited me to his house, a hours ascent, near Sedua. After breakfast cum lunch at his place he accompanied me to the main market at Sedua (reached around noon) and then showed me the way to Tashigaon. The trail is well marked and I followed it to reach the village of Tashigaon (2070 M) after 4 hours of walk. Halfway between Sedua and Tashigaon there is a small village (I think Manigaon) where there is a hotel cum lodge which can be an ideal breaking/resting point. Tashigaon is the last village (settlement) on this route. It also has a kerosene depot. There is a great camping site right at the top of the village (along the trail). The camping charges from here on is NRS 100. However, since there were no other groups the lady who runs the camping site offered me a dorm bed for the same price -:). Electricity (albeit solar powered) is also available at the lodge. From here on one can start feeling the cold in the evenings.
Upto Sedua and Tashigaon one can see some terraced farming (a paradise of bright green) amidst the thickly wooded forest surroundings, in places where there are settlements. The whole region (upto Khongma ) is very dense forests. It is no exaggeration, in saying a thick canopy of green extends as far as the eye can see. Walking through the wooded forests is very different to walking in the open grasslands (bugyals), climbing rocks, or walking on snow/ice, where one can see the destination or the route in the distance. There is an eerie silence in these woods, broken once in a while by the sound of a stream or a waterfall. When the rays of sunlight filters through the occassional gap in the trees breaking the monotony of darkness one knows that there is a world beyond. Through such a trail did I relentlessly climb 5 hours from Tashigaon to Khongma on the 14th.
I reached Khongma around 1.30 p.m just in time to pitch my tent before it started raining. The water sources at Khongma is not the best in the world. The water has to be collected from a distance and is muddy. It is advisable to filter it/boil it before drinking.
From Khongma to Dobato is a 5-6 hour walk across 3 passes. The first pass one crosses is called the Ghugura La (Tutu la : 4050 M). After this pass is a nice lake called Kalo Pokhari. Then one ascends the Shipton La (4216 M), named after Eric Shipton. On the other side is another beautiful lake called the the Tulo Pokhari (Tulo means big in Nepali). There are a couple of teahouses here but they were shut. Just beside the big lake there is a smaller lake before one ascends to the Keke La (4150 M) pass and descends on the other side for about 45 mins- 1 hour to reach the single tea-house at Dobato. This is an excellent camping site, with a good source of water nearby and great views.
There is a steep descent from Dobato down into the Barun Valley. The descent continues, for about an hour, till one almost reaches the might barun River and then the route swerves westwards and continues upstream along the mighty Barun River. For the next couple of hours one traverses across landslides. After the landslide the trail is pretty even till one reaches the picturesque campsite of Yangle Kharka (3600 M). It has a couple of teahouses. This is a very pretty campsite, hemmed in on 2 sides by massive mountain ranges, the river barun flowing beside, a pretty green maidan in front of the teahouses (ideal for camping) and the majestic mountains in the backdrop. If there was a good photographer he would click many photographs titled "Postcards from Heaven" in this mesmerising surroundings. Overall from Dobato to Yangle is about 5 hours.
On 17th I decided that we would go only till Langma Le (4400 M) which is about 3-4 hours of easy walking. It is a steady ascent to Langma Le. Langma Le has a solitary tea-shop. En route one crosses Merek (which again has 1 tea shop), about an hour from Yangle and Yak Kharka. Merek is another beautiful spot to break your journey and soak in the jaw-dropping beauty of the surroundings. I just spent an hour sitting here watching the lovely mountains. Thank god it was a clear day this morning. By the time I reached Langma Le at around 1 pm it was a white out condition.
18th was the big-day - the day I would reach Makalu Base camp. Honestly speaking, the 4-5 hour walk to Makalu Base Camp (~4700M ) is not very difficult. Of course because of altitude one does walk a bit slower. Again I thank the almighty for a very very clear morning. The views of "Shiba Dhara", a holy mountain, as the locals call it are just amazing. There are a number of peaks called Peak3,4 and 5 and chamlang which are also visible. However, I might even commit the sacrilege of saying that the view of "Shiba Dhara" seemed more impressive to me than that of Makalu. These views from Shersong, a small flat area, will leave you spellbound. IF you are with a local guide dont forget to ask him how "Shersong" got its name and most likely he will narrate to you a story (true or otherwise) which involves a "young couple" and a "bollywood like" song to boot. Don't be surprised if the guide does a dance number too -:). From Shersong there is a steady ascent about 100-150M before one "goes round the corner" to get a view of the mighty, majestic Makalu. You bow in obeisance, clasp your hands in a silent prayer and thank god for this opportunity. If you look closely you can also see the route/trail taken by some climbers who attempt Makalu.
I will skip the account of why I did not cross the Sherpani col. On 19th I decided to return and the return journey was going to be a quick one. I retraced the entire path, which had taken me nearly a week, in 3.5 days and this time I walked from Num to Khandbari, unlike while coming. The days were long 8-10 hour days. There is just one incident that I would like to recount. On 22nd I was returning from Khongma to Num. By the time I had crossed the bridge at Barun Kosi it was about 5.30 p.m and it was getting dark. There was a gruelling hour and a half of ascent. I decided to push on knowing that the trail would be going through jungle/forested area. I was about 30 mins from Num and by now it was really dark and as I was passing through the forests I suddenly saw 2 bright green eyes gleaming at me from the bushes in the side. They were at a sufficient height from the ground for me to fear the worst. There was nothing much one could do. I did not have the energy to run, nor was I going to get my torch out and shine it to ascertain what it was. So, I just said my prayers and pushed along on the trail and even as I passed it and went further up I dared not look back. After 15 mins or so when I saw some lights I was happy to be alive. I wont speculate and say what it could have been, nor what could have happened to me. But this little narration is just a lesson for readers not to be foolhardy.
Some Side Notes
October was the end of the climbing season for Makalu. So I had the privilege of meeting of some of the climbers who had attempted Makalu.
- I met an Australian climber, who was disappointed, for he had been able to reach only till camp 4. Wind had blown off 2 of his tents and the weather was not getting any better. So he had to give up and return - but look on the bright side he had all his fingers and toes intact.
- I saw a Japanese climber aged 70 who had returned to base camp. He started climbing after he was 50 and has conquered a number of peaks all around the world.
- There was an American lady who was still trying to make a summit attempt on Makalu. Despite the bad weather forecasts she was just not ready to give up.
- As per the locals (who owns a hotel at Yangle) less than 10-15 Indians go to Makalu B.C every year. That is a very miniscule number given its proximity to India (especially Kolkata)