ONLY 34 MILES north of Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu lies Langtang Valley, the first region Westerners explored beyond the Kathmandu Valley, in 1949, the same year the Nepali government loosened its strict isolationist policies that had left the country virtually untouched. The expedition was led by British mountaineer and explorer HW (Bill) Tilman, accompanied by a botanist and a geologist as well as Tenzing Norgay, the man who would summit Mount Everest one year later with Sir Edmund Hillary.
Tilman wrote of Langtang in his book Nepal Himalaya and called it a “fine, open valley, rich in flowers and grass, and flanked by great mountains…” More than 50 years later, the valley maintains its allure, in part because it’s a less-traveled destination than the Annapurna and Everest regions.
Syabrubesi, starting point for the trek. All photos: Author
The peaks of Langtang are visible from Kathmandu on a clear day, and after months of staring at them from an office in the noisy, chaotic city, I could no longer resist the magnetism of the snowy cathedrals. With two friends who were visiting from home, I boarded a bus that slowly began to pick its way along the twisting roads out of the Kathmandu Valley. The bus was filled with locals making their way back to villages — their goats shoved, bleating, onto the roof — and it sported a red, velvet-lined interior bedazzled with shiny metal hearts on the ceiling. A sticker of Che was plastered to a front panel of the inside of the bus; the revolutionary stared moodily at the passengers as Nepali and Hindi love songs wafted through the cabin.
Over the course of the journey, the bus acquired a flat tire and performed some dubious but impressive cliffside off-roading in places where landslides had pushed away previous roads. Nearly 10 hours after departure, we had safely reached Syabrubesi, the traditional starting point for journeys up into the Langtang Valley.
Syabrubesi is a small town filled with little more than hotels, ATMs, buses, and a couple convenience shops, built nearly entirely for the tourist economy. The town exudes a sense of anticipation as trekkers amble up and down the main street, eying the teasing slit of valley that holds promises of what's to come. My friends and I sat watching the street in front of our guesthouse—there were shop owners sitting together drinking tea, resting after the close of another day, and women hand-washing clothes while trying to keep children at bay. One young girl, frustrated and bored with the lack of attention she was receiving from her mother, snuck up behind me and threw her ball at my head. She laughed with pleasure and surprise when she saw it successfully hit its target, and quickly scurried away.
We were not even out of Syabrubesi the next morning when we came across our first police checkpoint—what would turn out to be one of many—along the trail. The officer looked serious, but a small, fluffy dog lay on the table beside him, effectively undermining any gravitas the man would have otherwise possessed.
Out of town, the trail hugged the river Langtang Khola, running with snowmelt from the mountains we held like precious stones in the maps of our minds. It would be a few days of steep ascent before we saw any visual confirmation of these mountains, but the river offered promising evidence.
Change of calendar
The predominant culture in the Langtang Valley is Tibetan, apparent in the way people dress, eat, and speak. There are both Tibetans and Tamangs, a group of Tibetan origin, that make up the communities living in the Langtang region. The Buddhist culture of the Tibetans contrasts with the Hindu culture prevalent in the Kathmandu Valley, and so despite the fact that we arrived at this guesthouse when it was the Nepali New Year in accordance with the Hindu calendar, the majority of people in Langtang had already celebrated the New Year, known as Lhosar in Tibetan culture, a couple months prior.
Many Nepalis we saw along the trail were porters carrying supplies higher up into the valley. They were transporting not only trekkers' packs but also large wooden beams, gas cylinders, metal cables, chickens, and more. However, occasionally we would run into the lone person who lived by themselves on the slopes, away from any village. They would be tending to horses or watching over their land.
In the morning of our third day in Langtang, my friend and I made our way off the main trail up to a small village that pushed up against the high valley walls. The village was quiet and desolate-feeling; we were alone until a man suddenly appeared beside us and asked if we wanted to see the village monastery. He disappeared and returned promptly with keys, beckoning us to follow him up the hill to the monastery.
Sometimes known as Langtang Gompa, the monastery was a plain, two-story stone building belonging to the unreformed Nyingmapa order, the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery was likely built around 600 years ago under the auspices of Mingyur Dorje, who initially brought Buddhism to the region from Tibet. The caretaker led us up a dusty set of stairs, and hung back as my friend and I gingerly walked around the dark room. On the walls were fading murals of Tibetan iconography—fiery demons, dragons, and deities—and clustered next to a window was a row of wooden skulls, commonly the symbol of death and life’s impermanence in Tibetan Buddhism. Periodically, the caretaker murmured quietly to us: People still come to the place for festivals and celebrations, but monks no longer live in the monastery like they used to. We lit two yak-butter lamps, placed them under a shrine of a Buddhist missionary, and then left. The caretaker locked the doors behind us and disappeared as quickly as he had come.
Not far down the trail from the monastery was the village of Langtang, one of the larger settlements we had come upon in the valley. Past the guesthouses and a small medical clinic, we arrived at Old Langtang, a collection of wood and stone houses interspersed with white prayer flags. The houses looked as they may have 100 years ago, but there was no denying we were in the 21st century. Outside one of the houses, a teenager relaxed and played games on his cell phone.
Many of the houses we passed in Old Langtang had fine woodwork. This art is famous in Nepal and is traditionally the handiwork of the Newar community, located in the Kathmandu Valley. In more recent times, however, other communities have also picked up the craft, including the Tamang in the Langtang Valley.
Along the trail we met Nurbu Lama, who lived in Langtang but owned a guesthouse with her family higher up in the valley. Despite the fact that the guesthouse was more than five miles away from Langtang, Nurbu would make the journey sometimes a couple times a day, no matter if it was snowing, rainy, or dark.
As we proceeded higher into the valley, the air became colder and the winds stronger. The landscape changed from forest to stark, rocky hillsides. The animals were also different: Instead of the mules, cows, and horses we had seen lower on the trail, groups of wandering yaks became a much more common sight. I had never seen yaks before, and they were smaller than I had imagined. They looked like furry, lumbering cows. It was unclear to whom the yaks belonged or if they had owners at all—they would roam the slopes as they pleased. In the Everest region of the country yaks are often used for packing, but here in Langtang they appeared blissfully carefree.
One thing yaks are useful for in Langtang is cheese and curd, a form of local yogurt. We passed by Nepal’s oldest cheese factory, built in 1955 at the initiative of the Swiss agricultural advisor to the UN. A friend in Kathmandu had once splurged on half a kilo of cheese from the factory; it was so stinky he left it outside his window, only to find to his dismay a crow devouring it the following day. I had the vague hope of acquiring some replacement cheese for this friend since his had met such an unfortunate demise, but when we arrived at the factory—which was really a small, three-room building—the workers were sitting around playing cards; the factory was silent. They were waiting for a new stock of milk, they said, but still gave us a short tour of the cheese-making contraptions. Cheeseless, we carried on.
At the end of the third day, we reached the high point of the trekking route at the upper end of the valley. The small town, Kyanjin, was a cluster of lodges that seemed comically vulnerable next to the mountain towers that surrounded it on all sides. The town is the last settlement of any kind at that end of the valley—beyond it lies wilderness and the Tibetan frontier.
Above Kyanjin is Kyanjin Ri, a minor peak that on clear days affords views of the valley and the amphitheater of mountains. Stumbling slowly upward towards the summit of this peak, I felt an acute but exhilarating sense of aloneness. Thick clouds had descended, obscuring everything but my feet underneath me, and the rushing of the wind penetrated all crevices of sound. After about an hour of climbing we reached the minor summit, where a collection of prayer flags were flapping, taking, as the belief goes, the inscribed prayers into the sky. After the prayer flags, the second sight we saw on the summit was a group of 20 Koreans, all cramped excitedly onto the small space of craggy rock. We wedged ourselves in next to them, our reveries of solitude left behind on the steep slopes. For a fleeting instant, the winds blew the clouds away from the mountainside. I hurriedly tapped a Korean and asked if he could step aside for a second so I could take a picture. As soon as I took it, the clouds once again concealed the mountains, as if jealously guarding a woman from peering eyes.
Looking back the way we came, the clouds shrouded the mountains. The proper summit of Kyanjin Ri was higher still, but the thin air, at approximately 14,000 feet, had left us weary, and there was no promise of a dramatic view to push us on. We slowly began our descent back to Kyanjin.
As we descended, the clouds continued to tease us with momentary glimpses of the arresting peaks.
We camped for another night at Kyanjin and the next morning woke up to six inches of fresh snow. Even as the early-morning sun was working its ways onto the slopes of the valley, expeditions were setting off into the mountain wilderness. Some aim to climb local peaks, some to journey all the way to Tibet. Most, however, travel up to the mouth of the valley and camp a night or two before returning to Kyanjin.
After the storm the previous night, the sky was the most brilliant it had been since our trek began.
Once at Kyanjin, most people trace their original route back down the valley. My friends and I did this as well, and were met with nearly surreal alpine landscapes.
The snow persisted even as we continued to descend the valley. It wasn’t too long before we passed back by one of my favorite landmarks along the trail: a lone house built into the side of an immense boulder. It had a beauty and resilience that was all the more striking against the freshly fallen snow.