How to avoid the crowds, and the costs, when you go trekking in Nepal
If you’re thinking of going to Nepal – and you really should be; it's an amazing place – the first piece of advice would be to get yourself out of Kathmandu and into the Himalayas as soon as possible. Sure, Thamel (Kathmandu’s bustling tourist enclave) is vibrant and buzzing with all kinds of life, and there are literally hundreds of nicely-priced hotels to choose from (try the charming Hotel Planet right in the centre of Thamel if you’re on a budget), but pretty soon the relentless activity and traffic overload will have you dashing for the exit.
Most visitors, when suffering from Thamel overload, head for the far more chilled environs of the trekker’s favourite Pokhara. Situated next to the Annapurna mountain range, it’s a low-key, relaxed spot that’s perfect to begin and end a hearty trek. For the budget traveller the best way to save money if you’re planning on going trekking is to ignore all the friendly offers of guides and trekking companies and simply sort everything out yourself: and here’s how to do just that.
Organise your trek
There are plenty of well-priced hotels in Pokhara – try the Sacred Valley Inn near the lakeside, which has a very good adjoining café, perfect for the ubiquitous Nepalese speciality Daal Bhaat (rice and lentils). In off season, expect to pay no more than a couple of pounds a night. Once you’re settled in, the next step is to get your trekking permit from the tourist office near the dam on the lakeside: £20 gets all the necessary forms filled.
With the permit you’ll probably need trekking gear – look for secondhand stuff returned by recent trekkers; it's far cheaper than the new stock. Get yourself a good map and voilà – you’re ready to hit the trails. Just hop on a local bus (you might have to ride on the roof but that’s all part of the fun, right?) and head for one of the entry points into the Annapurna range.
The key factor here is timing. If you go off season, just before the monsoon arrives (end of May/early June), then you’ll truly be wandering lonely as a cloud. For two whole days I shared the trails only with goats, giggling Nepalese schoolkids and the odd buffalo, and it was sheer heaven. In peak season there are hundreds of trekkers a day pouring into the Annapurna region, and the sense of awe I encountered on my own could only be diminished by those sorts of numbers. Of course, with the monsoon comes the rain, and with the rain come the leeches on the lower trails, but if you head out early each morning it's usually clear until the afternoon - giving you plenty of time to get some good miles in.
Hit the trail
I had decided to do the eight to 10-day ascent to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). Be aware that it's situated 4,300 metres up so altitude sickness can be a worry. Ascend slowly, take your time and you should be fine. I started with a very steep climb up into the little village of Dhampus, and from there headed up and down mountainsides to Chomrong, Bamboo, Machapuchhre Base Camp and finally ABC itself. It is surrounded by 8000-metre peaks and is surely one of the most wonderful places on the planet. Get up with the sunrise and simply sit and marvel at the serenity of the snow-capped peaks surrounding you – it will be an experience you will not forget in a hurry.
My other piece of advice would be to go soon, as things are changing rapidly up in the Himalayas. Roads are carving their way into the mountains in the perennial battle between the beauty that entices the tourists and the needs of the beleaguered locals. Nepal remains heartbreakingly poor, especially in the countryside, and this push and pull between modernity and the ancient hush of the hillsides is as fascinating as it is inevitable.
Nepal truly is one of those countries that gets right under your skin. Whether it’s the smiling, friendly people, the craziness of Kathmandu or the majestic sweep of the Himalayas, it’s a real gem of a destination. Go with an open mind and you’ll be rewarded with memories to last a lifetime: that’s a promise.