Fastpacking is all about moving fast and light in the mountains. It requires versatile, lightweight and packable kit. For those unfamiliar, take a look at our guide to fastpacking explained by fastpacking pioneer and #TeamMontane member Jenny Tough.
Eager to take on their own fastpacking adventure, photographer Jake Baggaley and running coach Sam Hill ventured to Nepal to take on the Langtang Valley. Boasting awe-inspiring, diverse scenery, a vast network of trails and unique mountain culture, it’s an excellent destination to broaden your fastpacking horizons…
Langtang without a plan
Adventures don’t need a lot of planning. In fact, things often turn into more of an adventure when one takes a more “laissez-faire” approach to the preparation. I love “winging it” and seeing what the universe brings - not to say that I enjoy being “unsafe" or “in over my head” but, considering how I am forced to spend the majority of my life being organised and on schedule, why not seek out some of the opposite? Adventures should, of course, be challenging but should also have an unknown outcome and, as Jake and I set off into the Langtang Valley, Nepal, the only outcome that was on our mind was “to have a bloody great holiday!”
November is a great month to be in the hills in Nepal. How can you not love the winning combination of stable weather, clear blue skies almost every day and quiet trails. Plus, November is perpetually grey in Europe so you can feel smug about being somewhere better! I had planned on spending most of the month out there and convinced my long time adventure buddy Jake Baggaley to come and join me for a week of exploring trails and eating Dal Bhat - he didn’t take a lot of convincing!
We met in Kathmandu as I was just returning from a couple of weeks bikepacking around the Annapurna circuit. I had a day to wash my kit, look at a few maps and pack a bag. Luckily, one of the many benefits of a fastpacking trip is that you don’t really need much stuff. This is especially true in Nepal where you find convenient tea houses (simple accommodation that provide food) spread out along most of the well known trails. So, a lightweight 30 litre backpack was all that was needed in which we stuffed some warm clothes, a bit of food and our larger than necessary cameras.
We only had limited preparation time in Kathmandu due to a general election taking place, meaning there were no transport options to the trail head if we had left a day later. For what feels like an incredibly peaceful country, we were informed that things can get a bit “spicy” on election days and we were even advised against travel in a private vehicle, as cars travelling between districts are assumed to be coming to interfere in the voting and often get shot at! So, we left Kathmandu with haste. I hadn’t even managed to get a trekking permit but that was a problem for future Sam to deal with…
Leaving Kathmandu, we drove the six hours north to Syapru Besi, just 14km from the Tibetan border. It felt good to be close to the mountains and about to head off into the unknown. Over the years, I have spoken to many people that have spent time in the Langtang valley and it always brings a smile to their faces. For tourists, it’s a great trekking option as the permits are cheap, there are plenty of tea houses along the route and there is no requirement to use a guide (although this may be changing). It was the perfect spot for our “off the cuff” adventure; we had lots of options and could adapt the plan day-by-day.
Staying present on the Trail
After spending the night in Syabrubesi, we hit the trails early and jogged along the cool, shaded river bank. The first couple of kilometers were like the start of any trip - adjusting layers, rearranging kit in our packs, finding the right pace, stopping to take too many photos…you know the deal. But we soon got into the swing of things and, as the trail gradually turned from jeep track to single track and started to gradually climb, we started catching a glimpse of the huge mountains that sat above us.
Fastpacking in the more popular areas of Nepal is an incredibly civilized experience and not a day would go by where Jake and I wouldn’t stop for a mid morning brew at a tea house. We were not carrying much food so we always made sure to use the amenities along the trail. I found these little breaks, sipping ginger tea and eating biscuits, really helped slow down the experience and encouraged me to stay present.
Quite often when I am fastpacking I very rarely stop. I will always be thinking about the “next bit” and will get to camp at the end of the day and realise that all I have been thinking about is the future. Not concentrating too much on what is right in front of me. During our whole trip in Nepal, I never felt like I was in a rush.
During our first day on the trail we passed through Langtang village. The town had been flattened in the 2015 earthquakes and over 300 people had lost their lives. The tragedy still feels very present in the area - everything and everyone in these small communities was affected in some way by the devastation.
A moment of peace at the summit
Day 2 took us up to the town of Kyanjen Gomba. The valley opens right up and the town is surrounded by archetypal towering Himalayan peaks. It’s a pretty special place to enjoy the afternoon sun, while eating a freshly baked cinnamon roll from the local bakery.
As it was only a short trek from Langtang village, after lunch, we went for a bit of acclimatizing up a small hill above town. The following day we would be going to our highest altitude so it was good to try and recruit a few more red blood cells before heading up - especially for Jake who had just arrived in the country 4 days earlier.
Tserko Ri is a popular little peak above Kyanjin Gompa. It gives incredible views up and down the Langtang valley and the higher mountains all around. It’s non-technical and sees plenty of trekking traffic but, at just shy of 5000m, we took things slow, especially as we were only 3 days into our route.
Despite Jake being far less acclimatized than me, he dragged me up the peak and we passed all the other parties en route. It’s a real treat to have a summit to yourselves, especially one as popular as this and we spent a good 20 minutes watching the prayer flags flap in the wind surrounded by some of the most amazing mountains I’ve ever seen.
Refuelling and Re-Routing
We were down in time for veggie burgers at the local bakery and it was time to make a plan. We were really encouraged by how much ground we were covering, even with a bit of altitude thrown in and, the more we looked at the map, it just seemed like the obvious thing to do would be to run back to Kathmandu.
We had another 5 or 6 days before I needed to fly and there was an obvious network of trails linking Langtang back to the city. So, after one more cinnamon roll, we pulled on our packs and started to head back down the valley.
We spent one more night in the valley before climbing steeply up and out towards the Gosainkund Lakes. After a full day of climbing, we stopped just shy of the Lakes with the promise of an incredible sunset. The tea house was perched on a ridge, just out of the tree line, with panoramic views over and towards the Annapurna region. Plus, the tea house had an ace dog so we kind of had to stay there. The sunset was as good as promised and, once the sun had dipped below the mountains, we retreated inside for two helpings of Dal Bhat, a bucket shower and the worst night's sleep of the trip!
The tea house only had 5 other guests but these 5 seemed to like a drink and, with paper thin walls, there was no avoiding the singing, chatting and snoring that went on until we got out of bed at 5am. We had ordered our normal breakfast of apple pancakes and tea - at least we would have that to wake us up after a bad night's sleep, right?
But it turns out that the tea house owners had also been on the Raksi and the kitchen and dining room was like a ghost town. Laughing at the whole situation, we slipped a few rupees into the receipt book that lay open on the counter and headed off into the dark in search of a nice sunrise over some mountain lakes.
Heading back to Kathmandu
This part of the trail is a local pilgrimage route and, as such, is pretty built up - there’s even concrete stairs with banisters. We were a bit underwhelmed by all this after the wild beauty of the Langtang valley but, it seems, Gosainkund Lakes are much the same as Snowdon. As soon as you get off the main tourist track and leave the crowds behind, you can breathe once again.
Climbing above the Lakes, we acquired a sweet little dog that kept us company up to the col above. The surroundings reminded me of the Pyrenees: dry rocky peaks, steep ridge lines and a constant feeling of excitement about the running ahead.
Having not had breakfast yet, we were gagging for some food and found a great little tea house with a view of the network of ridge lines that would eventually take us back into Kathmandu. We smashed a couple of plates of apple pancakes, peanut butter and a big flask of ginger tea before hitting the road.
The trail weaved around the steep hillside and eventually we climbed up onto a ridge line that stuck out above the treeline. We were desperate to see a Red Panda; every noise we heard in the bushes had us convinced it would be one of the cute little guys but, unfortunately, our loud conversations about punk rock and cameras didn’t lure them out of the undergrowth.
Fuelling en route
All day we had been just above a cloud inversion. At times, it threatened to engulf us, only minutes later to emerge again into the bright sunshine. We stopped early at a tea house with one of the best views of the trip and marvelled at the continuing beauty that the cloud inversion brought.
Food is constantly on the mind on any trip like this and we had both been keeping a mental note of the quality of the Dal Bhat we had been eating along the way at different tea houses. We had met a hiker walking in the opposite direction to us who had told us about the Dal Baht at this little place up on the ridge close to where we were staying.
She was so animated, almost to the point of tears when she was telling us about it that we had to go! It instantly climbed right to the top on my list of best Dal Bahts ever! I can still taste it now and picture the couple at the tea house that served us. If I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life it would be that Dal Baht!
Day 6 saw us drop into the treeline and more and more villages started popping up between the trails. It was great to see more people and get a taste of rural life outside of the mountains. Of course, there were plenty of places to stop for food and, at lunch, we tended to take a break from Dal Bhat and order big plates for fried potatoes with vegetables.
The nice thing about getting further out of the mountains is that the food keeps getting fresher and fresher, and veggies become a lot more plentiful. The length at which I remember the food that I ate on this trip goes to show just how good it is in Nepal - it’s a far cry from the crappy freeze dried meals that you usually have to survive on during missions like this.
As we rounded off our penultimate day, we left ourselves just one more hill to climb before we would drop down into Kathmandu. What had seemed like it might be a big effort when we were sitting in Langtang, the climb passed with very relative ease, no big epics and had been a whole lot of fun!
For me, taking the focus from being totally goal orientated to just seeing what would unfold along the way had made the whole experience feel different to other fastpacking trips. Our priority had been “to have a nice time” and nothing else really had mattered all that much.
As we looked down on the city from Shivapuri peak the following morning, it felt like a fitting end to my trip. Having seen everything from 7000m peaks, the hustle and bustle of the city and everything in between, the past 6 days gave me such a rich taste of Nepal.
Arriving where we started, back in the heart of the city, everything that was in the plan that we hadn’t really made seemed to have gone to plan…what more can you ask for?
For those feeling eager to take on a fastpacking adventure for themselves, take a look at our lightweight, minimalist fastpacking clothing and equipment to get started.