Eastern Himalaya: Trekking Routes Less Traveled: Jaljale, Mustang, Bhutan
Trekking activity in Nepal has increased dramatically in the past two decades. In 1972, 2,000 Nepali trekking permits were issued. In 1995, the figure was about 65,000. Now, in the peak season of October-November, the busiest trails in the Annapurna area resemble Yellowstone Park in summertime, with 40,000+ trekkers passing through annually. Some villages in the lower Annapurna region will see as many as 250 trekkers camped out each day.
Thankfully, however, many regions of Nepal remain relatively undiscovered. (80 percent of the commercial trekking is confined to 10 percent of the trails.) A fine alternative to the trekking superhighways is the Jaljale Himalaya, a region of eastern Nepal that sees very little trekking activity.
The Jaljale trek follows a high ridge trail, allowing easy walking and nearly continuous views of four of the world's five highest peaks: Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu. Begin in Kathmandu, Nepal's largest city and then fly to Tumlingtar where the trek begins with an easy walk through flat cultivated fields and across a river. The route visits a bazaar in the pretty town of Chainpur, then a Sherpa village, and then pushes on to the ridge which is the trekkers' highway above the clouds. The group traverses the ridge trail, first through isolated hill villages, then through a dense rhododendron forest. Upon reaching the Jaljale itself, a spiny mountain that runs north-south for over 25 miles, you will stay above 13,000 feet for nearly a week.
Coming down from the skyline trail, descend along the Mewa River to the rarely visited town of Topke Gola. An ancient Tibetan trading center, few outsiders have been to this remote outpost, where the rhythms of life have changed little over the centuries. Continue walking to the town of Basantpur. From there, drive to Biratnagar for the return flight to Kathmandu.
The ancient kingdom of Mustang on the border of Nepal and Tibet has been a fantasy trekking destination for decades. Until 1992 it remained closed to outsiders and shrouded in mystery. However, limited travel is now allowed and trekkers can explore the beauty of this exotic and unspoiled region of the Himalayas. Annapurna Circuit veterans will be surprised to find that Mustang is remarkably different than the rest of Nepal. In remote Mustang, Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture has survived virtually unchanged from antiquity. Two flights take participants from Kathmandu to Pokhara, then on to Jomsom where the trek begins.
The route, with broad vistas of Nepal's alpine scenery, passes mostly through high altitude semi-desert, broken by verdant oases. Following footworn paths along rivers, cliffs, and high mountain passes, trekkers visit villages, ancient monasteries, and marketplaces. The route combines steep climbs into high altitudes with level passages over farmland and across passes. This trip is truly an escape from civilization into a world relatively unchanged for centuries. The trip finishes with a helicopter ride back to Kathmandu from the 16th-century walled fortress town of Lo Manthang.
To the east of Nepal lies Bhutan, the least-visited of the Himalayan countries. Reputed to be the "true" Shangri-la, Bhutan hosts some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, arrayed in a diverse ecosystem with rainforests, fertile valleys, and glaciers reaching 24,000 feet. Protected by strict government regulation, Bhutan is an unspoiled wilderness rich in flora and fauna. On a trek in Bhutan you will find much the same scenery and terrain that you would in Nepal, but you will encounter few, if any, other westerners and witness dramatically less human impact. Forests remain uncut, covering 64 percent of the land area. Wildflowers, including orchids and the rare blue poppy abound in lush meadows and tropical foothills, and large mammals thrive in the woodlands.
Presently, Bhutan has relatively few trekking areas open to visitors. However, the scenery in these areas is stunning, and even with limited route options you are still likely to meet far fewer tourists in Bhutan than in most other Himalayan countries. Trekkers can also visit the impressive "Tigers Nest," an ancient monastery set into a 2,950-foot cliff face, as well as ancient forts and hot springs. The trek passes through forested valleys awash in rhododendrons, yak grazing pastures, several high mountain passes, and a picturesque village, finishing with a sightseeing program in Bhutan's capital city, Thimphu.
The total Jaljale adventure lasts 30 days, of which 21 are actually spent hiking. Most trips depart in spring and fall; those who travel in the spring will be treated to beautiful wildflower displays, while fall is the greenest period. Anticipated land cost is $3,000 (depending on group size).
The Mustang trip lasts 18 days and costs $4,000to $4,500 (depending on group size). If you have more time extend the Mustang trek to include Dolpo. This epic journey spans 38 days, costs $6,000 to $7,250, and augments Mustang with a tour of Dolpo, the dramatically beautiful region which inspired Peter Matthiessen's classic work The Snow Leopard.
A handful of companies offer guide services on Bhutan's trekking routes. The price runs on the high end, as government control keeps prices high in Bhutan, but for the $3,925 tag you'll be rewarded with a very special journey. For other excellent treks in Bhutan try Above the Clouds Trekking at (800) 233-4499, and Worldwide Adventures at (800) 387-1483.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication