My first visit to trek in the Himalayas was back in 2000. I spent 13 days hiking from Lukla to Gokyo Ri and back. It was and continues to be one of the most unique experiences in the world. The first time was challenging even though I had just finished summiting Mt. Rainer twice earlier that year and was in great shape. The years and mileage to this body certainly didn’t make this current trip any easier.
The best time of the year to visit is in April/May or October/November. Skies are generally clear during these times, but you might find more crowds. Because of the weather, those attempting to summit Mt. Everest usually go during these times as well, however, there’s no guarantee that conditions won’t drastically change. Spring or fall seasons are usually cold, often dipping below freezing. Since we had been traveling for 4 months already and had 11 more months to go, our clothing choices were limited and we relied on layering to help regulate our body heat—a wicking layer of synthetic or thin wool, an insulating layer of 800 fill-power down jacket, and an outer shell of PacLite GoreTex. By using a combination of these layers, we stayed fairly comfortable during our trek.
In 2000, the flight from Kathmandu to Lukla in the Himalayas was shared with various barnyard animals. Lukla Airport was still just a dirt landing strip with a couple of run-down outbuildings at the top of the runway. It was and still is The Most Dangerous Airport in the World. Since 2000, the towns along the trekking route have grown some. They have more reliable electricity, and even have indoor plumbing in many places. Heck, Lukla even has a Starbucks…well, sort of.
However, even with 16 years passing, some things haven’t changed at all. Supplies are still carried by porters, mules or yaks up the mountain. Guides are still available near the airport, but beware of the less reputable ones. Many of the trekking routes are still steep, rough and dangerous, and the teahouses, the Himalayan equivalent of a B&B, have improved only slightly. We no longer have to walk to a dark outhouse at night to use the bathroom. Most places have western style toilets, albeit often without toilet seats, and usually with a source of water to flush it. Plumbing still isn’t designed to handle flushing toilet paper, so a waste receptacle for used toilet paper sits next to every toilet. Some fancier teahouses even have ensuite bathrooms, but most are shared facilities.
Showers were available in many places, a few even had hot water. Somehow, taking a shower with ice-cold glacier-fed water just didn’t sound enjoyable, especially when the ambient air temperature was close to freezing, so we went without showering for 9 days. On my last visit, I didn’t shower for 13 days, and I hadn’t yet discovered wet wipes. It was not pretty. Being able to clean our faces and freshen up our private parts was definitely an improvement from my previous trek. When we finally splurged at the end to get a hot shower, we dealt with the opposite extreme due to the point-of-use water heater, no cold-water mixing valve, and the low flow rates.
Even with the proliferation of plumbing in the region, water is still not potable for us Westerners. We would purchase boiled or bottled water from our teahouse host for drinking that day and to brush our teeth at night. We drank a lot of tea and I carried instant coffee to get my caffeine fix. Occasionally, we would have a beer, but a cold beer usually wasn’t that appealing on a cold night. Instead, a Nalgene bottle filled with hot water became a source of heat at night and drank the next day.
Thanks to a number of micro hydroelectric projects, many places have electricity, but most teahouses charged extra (Rs.200-400) to use an outlet to charge a phone or camera batteries. We brought along a 25,000 mAh battery pack that we fully charged in Kathmandu which allowed us to keep our phones charged along the way. Not that we could make phone calls; cell service is spotty and this was one country where our carrier didn’t offer international service. Some teahouses in larger villages had unlimited WiFi internet available for an extra charge (Rs.300-500/stay), but I was told it was unreliable and the speed was only fast enough to check email and very little else. We used our phones mainly to play games and read eBooks.
The earthquake in 2015 killed many and displaced many more. Some buildings were simply abandoned, while others are part of the ongoing reconstruction. Because of the scarcity of wood and building supplies in general, teahouses and homes aren’t built to the same standards as in the West. Despite all the new construction, some things haven’t changed much. Teahouse guest rooms are still about the width of two single beds with a narrow aisle. Doors sometimes have doorknobs and locks, but mostly have just a hasp and padlock. The walls between rooms are still 6-8 mm (1/4-3/8″) plywood or hardboard which means you not only can hear your next door neighbor coughing at night, but because the beds are often built-in with just a thin foam mattress, you can even hear and feel when they roll over in their bed. Ear plugs are highly recommended.
Heat in teahouses was only provided in common rooms such as the dining room. Our sleeping rooms didn’t have any heat, but included thick comforters and blankets and a usable pillow. Sheri continued to use her sleep sack so she wouldn’t come into direct contact with the rough sheets in most places, and it provided another layer from the blankets that we doubt were laundered often. In many places, the thin mattresses didn’t provide much insulation so I slept in my clothes on top of extra blankets. At night, when the temperatures dropped significantly, I found myself wearing just about every layer of clothing I packed.
We paid our porter an additional $3/night for him to arrange lodging for us. Room rates varied but most were around Rs.200/night. To get the lowest rates, teahouses required us to take our meals (dinner & breakfast) in their dining room. That was usually fine since meals were about the same price no matter where you ate. We didn’t expect anything special from the food and that’s what we got—nothing special. Menus were very similar from teahouse to teahouse, but the preparation varied somewhat. Dal Bhat Veg, consisting of lentils and rice with some vegetables, is the unofficial national dish of Nepal and was usually the most filling for the money. Some places would even offer second helpings. The dining room table were also something we had to get used to. Some were Western-style, but others were the old teahouse style that were very low without clearance for our legs to fit underneath.
Every place we stayed seemed to give preferred treatment to their Caucasian clientele. Caucasians almost always got served first and their demands always seemed to be met. If they were cold and complained, the owner of the teahouse would fire up the stove. If they didn’t like their room, the owner would put them in better rooms. Almost anything they needed would be accommodated. I don’t remember it being this way when I was here before. It seems that as this destination becomes more mainstream, it attracts more demanding upscale travelers.
A well-built luxury hotel that catered to the Chinese and Americans (the only people decadent enough to afford such a place) could easily compete with these rustic teahouses, however, keeping a place like that supplied wouldn’t be practical. We saw some large construction projects happening with some fancy looking facades so I’m sure others have also thought there would be clientele for such a place.
Our lodging certainly wasn’t luxurious, but what follows are the places we stayed on our short trek along with our impressions. You’ll notice I mention certain things, such as heat, comfort, toilets, food, and location, because after days on the trail, not much else matters:
A convenient midway point from Lukla to Namche Bazaar. The See You Lodge had very rustic room with drafty windows, heat in the dining room, and teahouse tables with decent food, The only annoying thing was that the TV was on all the time. Food and drinks were a bit more expensive than most places, but they had decent toilets and one of the best beds with thick padding and warm quilts.
The owner was very friendly, but cheap, as evidenced by all the extra charge signs, so the dining room was usually cold with no heat. They had very good meals, Western tables and good toilets. The well-maintained third floor room has good views, but after a long day it felt like a strenuous stair climb. The owner’s cute daughter provided endless entertainment. It has a good location near the center of town with lots of decent cafes and bakeries nearby. Hot showers were available for RS.400 extra.
Tengboche Trekker’s Lodge
Further removed from the other teahouses in Tengboche, this very rustic teahouse was busy. It had a hot heated dining room, with cozy Western style tables, and was crowded and noisy. Food was just okay and service was a bit slow. It had the worst toilet of all; small cramped, no toilet seat, and it felt like I would fall through the floor. We were at a higher altitude so the room was very cold and very basic with paper-thin walls. We could hear people coughing and talking beside and below us. On the plus side, its location near the edge of a cliff had a great view of the mountains.
Despite what appeared initially as a higher quality teahouse, I had the worst sleep of the entire trek at this place. The beds had thin mattress padding, and the thin blanket was too small, making for very COLD sleepless night! Even the carpeted floor in room didn’t help retain any heat. The toilets were okay but the room had no window or ventilation, so they stunk. There was no heat in the main lodge until one of the Caucasian men asked to light the stove. Western style tables and food so ordinary, I don’t even remember anything about it.
Paradise Lodge – Lukla
This was our $15/night splurge at the end of our trek and our most expensive teahouse lodging. For that extra money we had large room with ensuite bath room and unlimited hot water, however, the low pressure and lack of temperature adjustment made the shower less than luxurious. Nonetheless, after 9 days, I was happy to be able to get clean before climbing into a cramped little airplane back to Kathmandu. I only wish other people were as considerate. The Paradise Lodge had no reliable internet, cold beer, and good meals, but no offer for seconds of daal or rice. Tea house tables made eating difficult ad we seemed to be one of the last to get food. Apparently, no one told us we needed to put our order in earlier in the day. There was no heat in the dining room, but it was so crowded, it wasn’t necessary. The hot towels before the meal were a nice touch. It had a noisy location literally right next to the helipad and airport. The helicopter leaving at 6:30 a.m. woke me up.
Prices are in Nepalese Rupees. These were the prices in Lukla, but get higher with altitude and distance away from the airport. Prepackaged items were more expensive and increased with weight, so we stocked up on candy and beef jerky before we departed Kathmandu. The exchange rate was about 100 RS = US$1.
- 280 noodle soup
- 500 can of beer
- 150 boiled water liter
- 300 candy bar
- 450 dal bhat veg
- 650 salami pizza
- 100 bottle of water 500ml
- 80 cup black coffee
- 550 country breakfast