Trekking in Nepal: Part One - Getting There
Trekking is synonymous with Nepal. Landlocked between India and China, Nepal is home to one of the most impressive stretches of the Himalayan Mountains. Of the 14 summits that reach over eight thousand meters in height, 8 of them are located in Nepal, including Mount Everest (some, like Everest, are shared along the country’s borders). Snaking through the foothills of the planet’s highest mountains are a network of roads, villages, trails, and teahouses that provide endless opportunities for exploration by visitors.
I recently returned from my first trip to Nepal, where a group of friends and I took on the trek to Annapurna Base Camp, a popular route for first time visitors. In this post, I’ll lay out some of the logistics involved in getting to Nepal and subsequently to a trailhead in the Annapurna region. Part Two will be all about our hike to Annapurna Base Camp, covering the actual experience of trekking. In Part Three, I hope to pass on some useful advice, tips, and other information I picked up from our trip, as well as some other things we did in Nepal that you might want to check out.
Stepping on to the tarmac at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, you’ll likely be ushered into a bus for a short ride to the arrivals building. The first thing you’ll need is a tourist visa, which you get on arrival in Nepal. The process has three steps, so having an idea of what’s coming can be helpful for navigating the system efficiently as well as beating the crowds to the front of the line.
Step 1: Complete a visa application. On your right as you enter the building is a bank of computer kiosks you can use to input your information and receive a printed application. Alternatively, you can use the online system up to 15 days before your arrival and print out a barcode that will serve as your application. I highly recommend the online system, as you can skip the kiosks in the airport and save some time, though the website can be a bit finicky and may require some trial and error.
Step 2: Pay for your visa. On your left as soon as you enter is the payment counters. If you have your completed visa application already, go straight there. Get in the appropriate line and pay for your visa. Visas come in 15, 30, and 90 day stays, for $25, $40, and $100. They only accept U.S. Dollars, cash only, so plan ahead. The last thing you want to do right now is deal with exchanging money.
Step 3: Get your passport stamped. Head deeper into the building towards the immigration desks. Again, be sure you’re in the appropriate line and hand your receipt, passport, and application over to the immigration officer, who will stamp your passport. You’re then clear to head to baggage claim and into Kathmandu.
For many, the next step would be to get some local cash. Unless you have prearranged for a ride from the airport (our hotel had a driver waiting) you’ll need at least a small amount for a taxi. As you exit the airport after baggage claim, you’ll see a money changer that can exchange your currency for Nepalese Rupees (Nrs). There are also ATMs in the airport, but be aware that you’ll likely be charged a fee for the withdrawal, and ATMs have caps on how much you can withdraw, meaning several trips will likely be needed over the course of your trip.
Money changers are easy to find in Kathmandu as well, so the airport isn’t your only opportunity. The exchange rate is set by government’s bank, so you shouldn’t see much variety between changers. Their rates are usually posted on signs out front. My wife and I brought enough cash for the entire trip (estimating $30-$40/day) and exchanged it in Thamel after settling in at our hotel. The exchange was quick, easy, and professional.
Trekking in Nepal requires two different permits, which you can get in Kathmandu after you arrive. The first permit is called a TIMS card, which stands for Trekker’s Information Management System. All trekkers in Nepal require a TIMS card, regardless of destination. You’ll need to know your itinerary, your travel insurance information, emergency contacts, and provide a copy of your passport as well as two passport style photos of yourself.
The second permit you’ll need will be specific to the region or trek you plan to hike. For my Annapurna Base Camp trek we needed an ACAP, which stands for Annapurna Conservation Area Permit. Similar information is needed for the regional permits.
To get both permits, go to the Nepal Tourism Board office in Kathmandu. TIMS cards cost 2,000 Nrs for individuals, and 1,000 Nrs if you’re part of a group. Regional permits vary in cost. If you’re trekking with a guide, which is not necessary for many treks, but can be helpful, they can usually arrange to get the permits for you. We sent our info, passport copies, and pictures to the trekking agency we hired, and they took care of all the paperwork.
If you plan to hike in the Annapurna region as we did, you will need to make your way to the city of Pokhara, 120 miles west of Kathmandu. The second largest city in Nepal, Pokhara sits along the shore of Phewa Tal, a large freshwater lake. The town is know as a tourism hub, due to its proximity to several large Himalayan Peaks and the availability of other recreational opportunities like hang gliding, rafting, and bungee jumping. If you make your way straight here, skipping Kathmandu, a Nepal Tourism Board office can be found in Pokhara as well.
There are two main ways to get to Pokhara, by road or by air. Tourist buses, private cars, and taxis are all options, and while inexpensive, can take anywhere from 6-9 hours. Road conditions vary, with weather, traffic, and construction contributing to the lengthy travel time. We chose to fly instead. If you can afford it (prices are set around $130 each way), the flight only takes about 25 minutes, assuming it leaves on time. Morning flights seemed to be more reliable. Get to the airport about an hour early and be ready for delays even with good weather.
Getting to the Trail
One more leg of travel is required before you can get your feet on the trail. This will vary for each trek, depending on the region and specific route. Taxis are abundant as well as travel agencies that can arrange everything you will need, from flights to buses and jeep rides.
For our group, things didn’t begin as we originally planned. Two of our group were delayed a day after their flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara was turned back due to bad weather. Having missed our original start time, we altered our itinerary to start farther up the valley, and our trekking agency arranged for two jeeps to drive us to a town called Siwai where we would spend the night and begin trekking the next morning. As we piled into the jeeps, the skies were already darkening, aided by storm clouds that had rolled in like clockwork every afternoon since arriving in Nepal.
Over the next hour and a half I experienced one of the most nerve-racking yet thrilling car rides I’ve ever been a part of. Most roads in Nepal are not paved, and are often crowded with taxis, motorcycles, and the occasional cow. Traffic laws appear to be nonexistent, with drivers following a complex and dynamic set of rules that combine into a chaotic dance as people swerve, honk, brake suddenly, and accelerate through gaps. The portions of road that are paved are often so badly potholed and damaged that you’ll wonder why they were even paved to begin with.
As we left town along the main road, a sudden torrential downpour turned portions of the road into a foot deep river of storm runoff. Undeterred, our driver weaved through the torrent, somehow able to dodge the deepest sections as well as oncoming traffic, all while wiping at the quickly fogging windshield with his hand. An hour went by as the road wound through the foothills, past the occasional village, and along the edges of deep forest covered valleys. Night arrived and darkness fell as the jeeps turned off the main road and up a steep winding path that was little more than a wide trail. We slowed to a crawl and bounced over the rough terrain for another 30 minutes before coming to a stop outside a group of quiet teahouses nestled in the forest. From here we would begin our trek to Annapurna Base Camp on foot.
Continue reading about the trek in Part Two here.