Before we left on our trip, people would ask me what I was looking forward to most. My answer was always Nepal. Specifically, trekking in Nepal. I have had an odd obsession with the mountains in Nepal for awhile now. I think there is something about the biggest mountains in the world that calls to my outdoor, adventurous spirit. Prior to our arrival, I spent a fair amount of time researching what kind of trek we could do in the Himalayas. I pretty quickly settled on something in the Everest region.. I needed to see the biggest mountain in the world. There are many options in the region, but one trek kept popping up on multiple lists as one of the most beautiful treks in the world. It was also described as more difficult than the standard Everest basecamp (EBC) trek, which most trekkers come to the area to do. It didn’t take much more than that to convince me that this was the one. And so we decided on the Three Pass Trek.The Three Pass Trek (TPT) encompasses much of the standard EBC trek (which is an out and back), but it also includes three “passes” which are essentially valleys between higher mountains. By doing the TPT, you complete a huge loop around the whole Everest region (or the Khumbu Valley). One source described the trek accurately as saying you come to the region for Everest, but the views from the passes are what fill your camera’s memory card.
We’re going to break up this experience into two posts because there is just so much we want to share with you! The next post will focus on the actual trek, while this post will focus on ‘everything else’, including the trek prep, a description of where we trekked (the Khumbu Valley), what we ate, where we slept, some notes about money and budgeting, whether you need a guide and/or porter, and some of the online sources we used for planning.
As I mentioned in this post, we spent much of the day before our trek running around in Kathmandu loading up on everything we would need for the trek. Everything we brought with us were things we needed for southeast Asia (read: warm weather clothes). We each had a pair of lightweight trekking pants and a long sleeve shirt, but that was about it. Below is a list of the items we bought in Kathmandu or Namche Bazaar (the big city in the Khumbu Valley, about a 1-2 day hike in from where you land when you fly in). Tip – haggle your little heart out, but do it respectfully and in good fun. I’m guessing $1 USD means a lot more to them than it does to you, so don’t be a jerk.
- Down Jackets. We ended up buying down jackets from Sonam (a Nepali activewear brand). The clothes are manufactured in Nepal (not like all the cheap knockoff gear made in China), and I read nothing but good reviews about the company. The jacket I bought was around $50 USD, and Sam’s was around $70 USD. We both love them. We could have rented jackets for about $1 USD/day, but that ended up being around $25 USD each, and neither of us had down jackets as it was, so we thought it would be a good ‘souvenir’. No regrets.
- Hats and Mittens. Cheap ($1-$3 USD depending on quality and bargaining), easy to buy, and worked well.
- Sleeping Bags. We rented these, and it was a very good decision. We never had any intention of buying them, but we read some bloggers got by just using blankets in the teahouses. I would not recommend this, at least in March. A sleeping bag is so much warmer, and it wasn’t that expensive to rent. I think it was about $1 USD/day for each bag and a liner. Plus, if a teahouse doesn’t have any extra blankets, you could be very miserable. We also liked having sleeping bags in our pack, just in case something bad happened on the trail. We had a way to stay warm for a bit.
- Guidebook/Map. We had this one and this one. We bought one in Thamel and got one on the Kindle. They are normal priced in Thamel (around $20 USD even for used books) which surprised us, so I would recommend getting one sooner if you can find one cheap. I liked both. The Lonely Planet one had a nice laid out itinerary and a bit of an update after the earthquake, but the other had really awesome detailed maps (but all pre-earthquake).
- Microspikes. These are basically rubber and metal spike things you slip over the bottom of your shoes to give you more traction. They were cheap enough ($27 USD for two pair) in Thamel and worked great for our purposes.
- First Aid Kit. There is a grocery store in town (right across from Hot Breads) with cheap medicine on the second floor. I’m not sure how good in terms of quality, but we went for it. We bought cough drops and nasal decongestant pills (since we heard many people develop a ‘Khumbu cough’ on treks) and some electrolyte replacement powder (to add to water and drink to replace liquids lost due to sickness). We already had a decent first aid kit, so we just needed to top up on some mountain hiking specific ailments.
- Nalgene and Water Purifying Tablets. Nalgenes are EXPENSIVE in Thamel. Bring your own!!! We couldn’t find Nalgenes without BPA for less than $18 USD. (Tip – Shops will say they have containers that are BPA free for cheaper, but the only ones that really are have ‘Nalgene’ stamped on top of the cover. The fakes have blank covers.) Wowza. I wouldn’t have thought that was going to be the expensive purchase. There are normal knock-off Nalgenes for cheap though, if you aren’t concerned about BPA. The water purifying tablets were also really expensive in the trekking stores. We found some in the super market described above in the same section for super cheap. I can’t definitively say anything about their quality, but we used them the whole trip and didn’t seem to have any problems. Also, there is no way to recycle plastic water bottles in the Khumbu Valley, so please consider bringing a reusable bottle and treating your water! Since we are budget conscious, we bought one Nalgene and one plastic water bottle. We used both of them the whole time we were trekking, and then we brought the bottle with us when we flew back to Malaysia and recycled it there.
- Leggings. I bought a pair for extra warmth. Honestly, I probably didn’t need them, but they were $3 USD and that bought me peace of mind as well.
- Snacks (aka Snickers). We did buy some snacks, but mostly we bought Snickers. A whole case of them. I have not one single regret about buying 24 Snickers bars. Our bags were only 20 lbs, but the Snickers were probably the most valuable things in there.
- Books. Good ol’ paperback books are good to bring with you for the afternoons in the teahouses after you’re done trekking. We thought there would be take-one-leave-one book drops in the teahouses along the way, but there weren’t. Like all luxury goods in the Khumbu, books are hard to come by. Also, the books in Thamel and Namche Bazaar were surprisingly expensive ($5-$7 USD for used books or more than double that for popular titles). We were able to trade books with another trekker once during our trip, but if you are traveling to Nepal, it might be a better idea to bring a few books with you from home OR if you are traveling overland, maybe stock up from hostels/hotels along the way. Or a Kindle works great.. my battery lasted the whole trek.
- Hiking Boots? We did not rent or buy hiking boots, but I wanted to mention them so I could tell you what we did do! We ended up using our running shoes. Sam had a pair of road running shoes, and I had a pair of trail running shoes. And they were fine. Were they amazing? No. We would both have worn hiking boots if we could have brought our own, but we weren’t going to buy or rent pairs. Can you do this in running shoes? YES. Especially if you are doing the EBC trek. The only times it got a little dicey were over the passes, because there were bits that had some snow and ice (the microspikes were ESSENTIAL since we didn’t have trekking poles either). Really, the snow didn’t get to me. The part that got to me was that the trail is really dusty. And our shoes let that dust right through. Our feet were just disgusting most days. I most wanted hiking boots because I think it would have kept our feet and legs a little cleaner.
A tip on buying in Kathmandu versus buying in Namche Bazaar: buy in Kathmandu. We understood that it was fine to buy things in Kathmandu or Namche.. both had all sorts of trekking goods at decent prices. Namche Bazaar may still have had decent prices on some things compared to home, but it was a whole lot more expensive than Kathmandu. As we were bargaining, many people said something like “well, that’s the price in Kathmandu, and it has to be brought up here, so it’s this price here…” We would recommend getting everything you can in Kathmandu.
The Khumbu Valley
The Khumbu Valley is the region in Nepal where Everest is located (see: Khumbu Icefall) among many other tall beautiful mountains. It is also home to the Sherpa people who you may have heard of if you’ve read or watched anything to do with Mt. Everest. Sherpas are the native residents of the Khumbu Valley. I’m not going to go into great detail (that’s what Google is for) but the key thing to know is that Sherpa is not synonymous with guide or porter. Yes, Sherpas are the people primarily hired by Westerners in their attempts to climb Mt. Everest (including when Edmund Hilary and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay first summited the mountain), but one CAN be a Sherpa and NOT climb mountains. In fact, many don’t (see: Sherpa farmers, Sherpa business owners, etc). They are also primarily Buddhist and, to us, they seemed to be very kind people with strong family values and a pride in the region.
Since the Khumbu Valley starts at an elevation of 11,000 feet and only goes up from there, only the most hearty of things can survive. In some of the first days of hiking, we saw multiple crops such as cabbage, carrots, and the like. But, the higher you went up, the more and more potato plots you saw, until all you saw were plots of potatos built into the side of mountains. So many potato plants! So we did what any locavore would do… we ate lots of potatoes! And those Sherpas know how to prepare a mean plate of fried potatoes.
Another thing of interest about the Khumbu Valley is that Sherpa’s believe nothing should be killed in it.. meaning any meat you eat on your trek was likely killed outside of the Khumbu and carried into the Khumbu for any number of days. And I mean carried. There are no roads in the Khumbu Valley, so anything brought in is either literally carried on a porter or yak’s back up a mountain or flown in on a plane or helicopter (although I doubt that’s how the meat gets there..). If that’s not an incentive to be a vegetarian on your trek, I don’t know what is.
To expand on the no roads piece a little bit.. can you imagine?! There are no motorized vehicles. None! If you want to go see your sister in the next town, you better put on your durable flip flops (the shoe of choice by Sherpas) and start walking! When a Sherpa guide asked where we were from, we said Denver. He asked how far away that was from Boulder because he knew some Sherpas who lived there. Sam said that it was about 30 minutes away. And the Sherpa replied, “oh, by car?”. OH RIGHT. Because they don’t ever use cars and are used to expressing distances by hours of walking! Mind blown.
Eat and Sleep
Trekking in Nepal is unique compared to other parts of the world because you can trek through the most beautiful locations during the day and still order a plate of delicious hot food and sleep under a roof at night.
When trekking the more well worn paths in Nepal, it is possible to stay in teahouses every night. Every teahouse we stayed at had basically the same set up. They consisted of a central dining room with tables lining the walls of the room. In the middle of the room is the stove that produces warmth. It is the only source of heat you have besides the sun (which sometimes didn’t do an ounce of good) and your trusty sleeping bag. Many afternoons, after we were done trekking for the day, you could find us huddled around on the benches, just waiting for the lodge owner to light the fire so we could huddle around the stove. Sometimes we would venture out to do some exploring in the afternoon, but afterwards, we were definitely back sitting around the fire. (Just a note, we went early in the season. March can be cold. I think other times of year are not quite as bad.) Also interesting to note – since most of the trek is above tree line, the fuel of choice in the lodges is yak dung rather than wood.
Aside from the dining area, there were halls of rooms. The rooms had no heat, no electricity (meaning no charging ability), but usually had a light source powered by solar energy. Most rooms had two single beds, one on each side of the room, with a small table in between them. In teahouses, the rooms are free (or at most $2 USD/room), because the owners make money through the food you buy. If you don’t eat in the teahouse (at least dinner), they charge a large fee for you to stay in the room.
In most teahouses, you can charge electronics or buy internet cards from the teahouse owner for an additional fee, which (you guessed it!) increases as you move up in elevation. Running water is also a luxury you lose after the first few villages. After that, it’s just a bucket of water and a scoop, although once in awhile you can buy a ‘hot’ (read: usually lukewarm) shower from a lodge for an extra fee. As you may have deduced, it gets easy to rack up extra costs at teahouses if you need all those little luxuries. We didn’t. We didn’t shower above Namche Bazaar, we never bought charging capabilities (thanks to our awesome external battery!), and we only bought one internet card because we forgot to pay a credit card bill that was due. But to each their own!
We really enjoyed the teahouses. Sure, we were cold a lot, but we met a lot of cool (no pun intended) people huddling around the stove each evening. Nothing like a strong desire to be warm to help you to make friends, eh?
In some of the villages, there were fancier lodging options available (see: $50+ USD), but those weren’t in our budget, so I’ll let you do separate research on those if you so desire.
You know when how when you go backpacking you may take peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or dehydrated food packets that taste terrible? Yeah, that’s not what you eat when you stay in teahouses. Most teahouses have similar menus, but all of them can whip up some hot and pretty tasty food. Of course, the food increases in price the higher you climb, but I wasn’t complaining. Here are some of our favorites.
- Dal Baht. Dal Baht was our staple throughout the trek. It is a traditional Nepali dish.. in fact, I think it is what they eat most of the time. It consists of rice, curried vegetables, and lentils in a broth. It also usually comes with a papad, which is a toasted rice cake of sorts. There are a few benefits of getting Dal Baht. First, it’s delicious. Second, it checks all the necessary nutrient requirements.. it has carbs and protein and vegetables, all minimally processed and maximally delicious. Third, and most importantly, you get free refills. That’s right. You order Dal Baht, and you can keep eating until your little heart is content, or at least that is the tradition. Some teahouses (typically those at lower elevations) were a little hesitant to provide refills, but they all would if asked. Be confident! Get that Dal Baht!
- Breakfast Sets. Breakfast sets are pretty much what they sound like.. a set of breakfast items, including eggs, toast, potatoes, baked beans (what?), and coffee/tea. They were expensive (maxing out at $10 USD in Chukhung) and a little hard to find (probably only 1 in 3 teahouses had them) but they were filling and perfect fuel for a big day of trekking. The food stuck to your ribs until early afternoon.
- Milk Tea and Masala Tea. We lived on milk tea. It is exactly like it sounds.. black tea with (yak?) milk added and sometimes sugar. If sugar wasn’t added, you can be sure we added it. You could order a small pot, a medium pot, or a large pot. A small pot (what we usually ordered) was around 6 cups of tea, but we also splurged for a medium pot once in a while. This was also a good source of liquids as you were gaining altitude (because it’s good to stay hydrated to avoid getting altitude sickness). Masala tea was similar to milk tea, but it had some extra delicious spices in it (sort of similar to chai).
- Momos. Momos, a Tibetan specialty, are essentially dumplings. Little pockets of cheesy, potatoe-y, vegetable-y goodness.
- Tsampa Porridge. Tsampa porridge is another traditional food for Sherpas. It is a porridge usually made out of barley. It has a little bit of a gritty texture to it. It was another breakfast that kept you going for quite awhile, especially when you add in peanut butter (bring your own, trust us).
- Tibetan Bread. Tibetan bread is basically bread fried in a skillet. It comes out crispy and oily (in a good way) with air pockets. We ate it topped with eggs, and it was darn tasty.
- Banana Pancakes. You make pancake batter. You pour it in the pan. Before it cooks, you add in slides of banana. You cook as normal. You serve. THIS IS GENIUS! Why have I never thought of this!?
- Spring Rolls. These aren’t what we typically think of as spring rolls. They are more like burritos stuffed with cheese and potatoes and vegetables. We had the most delicious one in Gokyo. It had a sauce that together with the spring roll reminded me of eating a pizza roll.
- Fried Potatoes (with veggies or egg or cheese). Again, one of the only things that can be grown at such high elevations are potatoes. So naturally, fried potatoes were on every menu. They were usually fried with vegetables (carrots, cabbage, etc.), and you could add in a fried egg on top or some yak cheese.
- Fried Veggie Noodles. This option is similar to the fried potatoes, but instead of potatoes, substitute noodles. This usually wasn’t exceptionally delicious, but it was bland and it was carbs, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need at the end of a long day trekking.
- Coffee, Baked Goods and Pizza. This is a cheat item, because they actually weren’t at teahouses. Many of the villages on the trek had bakeries. Yes, bakeries at elevations above 10,000 feet. Some were amazing (I’m looking at you, Namche Bakery), while others left something to be desired. Usually the higher the elevation, the less delicious the bakeries. But can we really complain if we are eating fresh baked brownies in little towns at elevations higher than all mountains in Colorado? Apparently apple pie is a big thing too – we saw several “Best apple pie in Khumbu” signs.
There are no ATMs on the mountain (surprise, surprise), so you have to bring all the cash you are going to need on your trek with you from Kathmandu. We heard there is actually an ATM in Namche Bazaar, but it’s not something that should be relied on. To make it even more interesting, Nepal’s currency maxes out at a 10,000 rupee note (around $10 USD) or at least that is the biggest note ATMs spit out. We decided to bring $1,000 USD (20 days x 50 USD/day = $1,000 USD) which meant we started our trek with a stack of 100 10,000 rupee notes. It was huge! Is that a wad of rupees in your pocket or are you just excited to trek?
How did that $1,000 USD work out for us? Well, we ended up only being gone 18 days, but I think it would have been just fine for 20 days.
For a more detailed breakdown of our expenses, see the following table. Keep in mind that the $1,000 USD we mentioned above wasn’t needed to cover the flight to Lukla (which is the town we flew to from Kathmandu to begin the trek) or the trekking gear, we paid for that in advance.
- Flying into Lukla is a big cost. It ended up costing $37 USD/day, or a little over $18 USD/day/person. The amount also includes the taxi fare to get to the airport for the flight.
- Gear. We spent $237 on trekking gear, so if you bring all of your own stuff this will, obviously, be much less.
- Non-negotiable. National park fee and TIMS card cost us just about $100 USD, or $50 USD/person.
- Cheap lodging. We spent $28 on lodging. This includes the night before we left on our trek, so if you remove this, we only ended up spending $10 USD TOTAL on lodging during our trek. Crazy, right?
- Food. During our trek, we spent $40 USD/day on average or $20 USD/day/person. This includes around $5-8 USD just on coffee/tea. So if you are looking to do this on a strict budget, you could probably get by with an average of $15 USD/day/person. But a nice pot of tea at the end of a long trek is sooooooooooooo good.
Assuming you don’t need to buy any gear, you could fly into Lukla and complete this trek for around $39-$42 USD/day/person (removing the trekking gear expenses we incurred). If you hike into Lukla (which is an option instead of flying), you could have a very inexpensive trek indeed!
Do you need a guide (or a porter)?
It depends. I would say around 75% of people we met had guides and around 50% of people we met had porters (someone who won’t guide you at all but will carry your bags). We met many people trekking solo, and they all had guides.
We trekked without a guide or porter. Surprisingly, most people we saw doing the TPT also were trekking independently even though it is a more difficult trek than the EBC trek. If you are comfortable in the mountains and following a fairly well worn path, I do not think you need a guide for EBC. If you have an even bigger sense of adventure and are comfortable having to look around for paths once in awhile or asking locals where paths are, I do not think you need a guide for TPT. They are both definitely doable without guides, but you should always be prepared when trekking by yourself and have a compass, a map, etc. However, guides can provide reassurance and they take some of the work out of it for you. They plan out the route for each day, lead you to the right destination, and often take care of ordering all your food for you at the teahouse. They also are able to provide a lot more information about the Sherpa’s culture and the landscape, and it is a boost to Nepal’s economy which is a huge plus! Porters definitely make things easier for you, as they carry your pack, but they don’t really help out in any other way as their English is usually limited.
We chose to trek without a guide and porter for a few reasons. First, we were on a tight budget and a guide costs $20-$25 USD per day. I think a porter is maybe $10-$15 per day. Second, our bags really weren’t that heavy compared to the vast majority of trekkers. Third, we really enjoy going at our own pace. We have a fairly large sense of adventure, especially when it comes to athletic activities in nature, so we were comfortable trekking on our own and at our own pace.
There are a few quasi options. I’ve heard there are guide/porters. Basically people who are porters, but they are working their way up to becoming guides, so they might not have the experience that other guides do (or their English may not be quite as good yet), but they cost between a guide and a porter. There is also the option of hiring a guide for a day. For example, if you aren’t comfortable going over the passes without a guide, many of the teahouses can arrange for a guide for you for just one day (the day you go over the pass).
One other tip on this topic – it is usually much cheaper to arrange a guide and/or porter once you get to Nepal, especially if you go with a local company. Just keep in mind that you are the employer of the guide and porter. It is your responsibility to make sure the porter has weather (and mountain) appropriate clothing and gear. We’ve heard some horror stories of companies sending up men from the lowlands without any warm clothes or gear. Also, everyone working for you should have insurance, should they get altitude sickness. Again, we’ve heard that sometimes workers from the lowland push themselves too hard while working as porters and get very sick on the mountain. Research the company you go with and hire responsibly!
The following are sources that we used to plan for our trip.
- Awesome source that I referenced several times. It has everything all in one page.
- Another great blog post about TPT.
- Trip Advisor forum about TPT.
- We saw this after the trek, and it made my heart ache. In a good way.
Our itinerary was based off of the itinerary in the Lonely Planet book, but we cut out and consolidated a few days at the end so the entire trek ended up being 18 days. We were cold and ready for some warm showers and cheaper eats!
Okay, that’s enough for now! Stay tuned for Part II in which we’ll talk more about the actual trek highlights!