..Walking the path most traveled
.. ‘Trekking’ has become a much maligned word of late. In Nepal I’ve heard it used to describe everything from an arduous summit climb to a morning stroll up a stone staircase. One factor that appears to be paramount in the categorization of a modern ‘trek’ is whether or not its’ participants are using specialist equipment… trekking boots, rucksacks, trekking poles and the like. It would appear that by utilising the right equipment, pretty much anything in the Himalayas can be described as a trek these days. By this definition then, travelling up to the sacred Gosaikunda Lake in Nepal’s Langtang region at full moon would not be classed as a trek. It is a walk… very occasionally a climb, but most certainly a walk. August full moon falls in the heart of the rainy season, a time when I, like most foreign visitors are warned that ‘trekking’ in Langtang is dangerous and therefore ill-advisable. Fortunately, I’ve spent a fair amount of my life squinting at fearful murmurs and coy warnings and consequently, during my walk to the lake alongside thousands of pilgrims I only encountered a couple of other backpackers, both of whom seemed as surprised as me that no other non-Nepalis had bothered to come and enjoy such a great spectacle as this.
A young shaman at the Gosaikunda’s Shiva temple
Whether you are a Hindu pilgrim, a local Jhankri shaman or like me, a nosey onlooker, you have two possible routes to get to Gosaikunda. From the south east your way is blocked by the hefty Laurebina pass at over 15000 ft and consequently, pilgrims coming this way from Kathmandu often choose to make the walk from Sundarijal (1460m) gaining altitude slowly over a few days before attempting the pass. The alternate, much shorter and far more popular route is from the north west starting at Dunche (1960m) a town that is serviced by a main road from Kathmandu. However, at this time of the year, the road is plagued by continuous land slides which in my case caused the bus journey to be split in to 3 parts. Over the best part of 15 hours we were forced to transfer between 3 different vehicles, walking about 2 km between each ride and making our dash over the treacherous landslips aided by local ‘spotters’ who sat above the areas of rockfall whilstling a signal when the route was clear of falling debris. The route on foot from Dunche is steep and gains altitude rapidly so you are advised to spend at least a couple of days climbing the one and a half vertical miles to the lake. I stopped a night in Chandanbari and then Laurebina which allowed me to avoid any major signs of altitude sickness. If however, you are unlucky enough to get sick, around the August full moon there are a fair few volunteer doctors stationed in tents along the route to the lake available to administer treatment. Speaking to one such group I was told that the station at the lake was almost exclusively visited by people suffering from altitude sickness, especially since some of the pilgrims were making the walk from Dunche in one single gruelling 24 hour march.
Due to the large numbers of pilgrims walking to the lake over the few days leading up to full moon, all along the route impromptu tented villages spring up to house and feed the weary travellers. At short notice, the only way to assure yourself a dry place to lay your head for the night is to utilise this resource and share your floor space with other people for a few hundred rupees (including food). If you’re after a room on your own then you’ll have to book one of the few guesthouses on the mountain in advance… something you will be charged a very healthy price for. Rooms in lodges during this time tend to be shared by large groups of pilgrims from Kathmandu and their prices increase dramatically up to Rp10,000 a night at the lake itself.
Both Gosaikunda Lake and the August full moon are revered by Hindus and local Shamans alike so there is plenty to see at this time of the year. Hindus come to the Lake to bathe away their sins on the date of Janai Purnima, the day they traditionally change the sacred thread (Janai) that is worn around the neck or hand all year. The local Tamang shamans on the other hand come here to dance, bang dhyangro drums and perform sacred rituals around the lake. As it turns out, this year it was noted that there was a distinct lack of shamans in attendance due to the fact that there had been a huge gathering of indigenous holy men happening in a very remote location to the east of Kyanjin Gumba just a few days prior. Held once every 7 years, it’s the kind of thing I would have loved to have visited but unfortunately my intelligence came in too late. Needless to say it’s been filed away in the ‘to do’ list for some another time…
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Over the years I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Himalayas. These days, in Nepal it’s very easy to fall into a love/hate relationship with trekking. On the one hand, the country certainly has some of the most spectacular mountain scenery to be found anywhere on earth. On the other though, the golden years of exploration by foot are well and truly over. Nepal’s most magnificent ancient pathways have become holiday trekking routes for tourists. Villages are often almost completely turned over to guesthouses and local culture along the popular treks has all but given way to Northface culture.
If you are keen to trek in any of Nepal’s better known national parks and you desire to witness some interesting culture I would highly recommend that you base your trip around a pilgrimage such as this. You could start by studying this list of holy days and then choose a walking route that takes you via a sacred location… there are plenty to choose from all around the Annapurna, Langtang and Everest regions. Walking with thousands of pilgrims off-season was an invigorating experience for me, something that could be in great contrast to your experience surrounded by hundreds of backpackers trekking the Anapurna circuit in November.
One inevitable question is ‘Do I need a guide?’. The simple answer is no. Certainly not if you think you’ll need one to lead the way. The pathway to Gosaikunda is very obvious and you will be accompanied by many other folk walking the same route. However, a guide may be useful to act as a translator. I chose to walk alone on this trip and I had a great time. It was the right decision for me because it forced me to make more personal effort interacting with people. Sometimes I find that using a guide makes me lazy, especially in a country such as Nepal where the guiding system is old and extremely well established.
Good luck with your own pilgrimage!
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