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Solo trekking to the Gokyo Lakes

Written by Joshua Fuglsang on .

The spectacular 6,782m Kangtega mountain

Introduction

To kick off my round the world tour, I first wanted to disconnect from our modern civilisation. I wanted to become lost in the wilderness and to have ample time to think about my journey ahead. I have loved trekking for many years, having previously completed several multi-week treks in areas such as Tasmania's wilderness, protected tropical Islands, as well as the Annapurna circuit. I had already organised to visit Nepal to attend a month long meditation course, so since I would be flying to the country I decided to start my trip with a walk, or rather five weeks of continuous walking.

I chose Gokyo as my destination after reading Lonely Planet's "Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya". There are quite a lot of treks in Nepal, Lonely Planet only just scratches the surface, as I found out once I had arrived, but the Emerald Lakes of Gokyo stood out to me the most. Originally I wanted to walk Mt. Manaslu, but it required that I walk in a group of two and take a guide. That didn't work for me, as I wanted to walk solo. Another option was the Doplo Region, but again required a guide and a group. So after much reading, I decided to go with Gokyo; a trek described in Lonely Planet as "the highlights of Everest Base Camp without the tourism".

This article has an accompanying photo album on Flickr, check it out here!

Arriving

Monastery in the Mountains

Monastery in the Mountains

Touching down in Tribhuvana Airport is like going back in time. The airport is a complete shambles; with people standing on the runway for selfies with aeroplanes, and the baggage collection area a sea of abandoned trolleys, stacks of televisions and other imported goods, and a throng of people filling what space was left.

The first thing I had to do was organise my sim card, standing in the queue I met a lady from Estonia also planning on trekking; so we split a taxi to the city and over the coming days decided to join our treks, though realised that we wouldn't finish it together as we had different timelines.

Getting to Solukhumbu

To start the trek I decided to walk in rather than catch one of the perilous planes. There had been one crash already in 2017, though it wasn't widely reported on because it was only a cargo plane rather than a passenger plane. Accordingly, the airline was rebranded later the same month.

Originally I planned to walk in to the Everest area via Jiri, however I was suggested by a local man to walk in via Salleri as it was three days shorter. There wasn't a lot of information about the Salleri trek online, however this blog proved to be fairly useful, but lacked a bit of detail. I documented each day of walking quite thoroughly, though I won't post my records here as it is outside of the scope of this website. If you would like my trail notes, then feel free to send me an email.

Catching the Local Jeep

To get to Salleri, you need to catch a jeep or a local bus. I caught a jeep, and supposedly the jeep is more comfortable than the bus, but I haven't caught the bus so I can't comment. To buy the tickets we were taken to the bus depot by my hotel. The bus depot is in Chabahil on the ring road, you can see it quite easily on Google Maps by searching for Chabahil Chowk. The tickets cost 1400rs each, or about $17 AUD, though according to other blogs they were 900rs. I guess the price had gone up, though is still exceptionally cheap.

Three generations in Solukhumbu

Three generations in Solukhumbu

The jeep was due to depart at 5am, but didn't get away until 5:30am, which I still consider to be an overwhelming success considering the punctuality of most Nepali transport. The journey took around 12 hours in total, and covered a distance of about 200km. The road for the most part was pretty good; it was sealed for most of the trip, with the occasional unsealed corner, or patch of shattered road where a boulder had fallen down from above. Talking to other travellers who had completed the journey in previous years, you used to have to swap jeeps half way through and cross a rope ladder on foot. The final 20km or so of road was the worst; this section was completely unsealed, hugged the edge of a mountain, and dropped off sharply in to a foaming river far below. Parts of this section were extremely rocky, I had to hold on to the door handle in the car to keep myself from sliding around the seatbelt-less back seat. During the later part of the trip I spotted two buses turned over and rusted out a few hundred meters away from the road down the valley. At one point we came across a heavy chain draped across the road, following the chain you could see a Jeep down the valley. The accident must have happened within a few hours.

Riding in the jeep with us was a mountaineering guide from Kapan. On the way out of the valley he pointed out a small, distant pinnacle poking out of a cloud - Mount Everest. Such an amazing gift. You could not see the foot of the mountain at all, just the peak high in the sky.

Walking to Namche Bazaar

Villages leading to Namche Bazaar

Villages leading to Namche Bazaar

Walking in from Salleri was one of the most special parts of the trek for me. The villages in this area existed for more than just tourism, you could see the villagers just living their normal lives. The weather unfortunately on the first two days was a bit wet, which was fairly unheard of for October, though not unpleasant but it did make muddy, treacherous walking. The worst section was the climb in to Nunthala; here the path had swollen to two meters wide from the donkey trains, and it was very muddy. You could slip easily, and with each step the hungry mud would swallow your foot up by a few inches. The trail everyday went up 600m in altitude, before dipping back down another 600m in altitude, so it was pretty tough going. It crossed through forests of Rhododendrons, over exposed high-passes, and past immaculately maintained Buddhist monasteries. For the first day we didn't see any other tourists, not until we had converged with the main Jiri trail did we start to see other travellers, and even then the volume of people was just a fraction of what we would encounter later. During this part of the walk, my Estonian friend and I parted ways, as I became unwell with what I suspected to be food poisoning and had to take an afternoon of rest.

Shrine in 500 year old monastery

Shrine in 500 year old monastery

One of the most special parts of this section was a 500 year old Buddhist Monastery that I found as part of a side trail. The monastery featured a shrine of Guru Rinpoche, who is an 8th century Buddhist master, and is considered to be the ‘Second Buddha’ across Tibet. It was a very special day; I was shown around the temple by a monk who was the same age as me.

Walking with the donkey trains

Walking with the donkey trains

Namche Bazaar is a bit of a hub in the Everest Region; it is a large town, which everybody needs to pass through to reach the trekking destinations beyond. It is also an important acclimatisation point, you have to rest here for at least one night, but preferably two, before you continue on unless you are willing to risk getting altitude sickness. To get in to Namche Bazaar there is a day of steep climbing; for the first part of the day you are following a turbulent river fed by the glaciers high up in the mountains, before beginning a steep two hour climb on a dusty trail switching back and forth through pine forest and crossing steel suspension bridges. On this section of the walk I met up with three ladies from Western Australia. We walked together up to Namche Bazaar, and shared accommodation for two nights. This was to be the final destination of their trek, so after the two nights they returned back to Lukla and onwards to Kathmandu.

Namche Bazaar to Gokyo

Nepali enjoying view of Ama Dablam

Nepali enjoying view of Ama Dablam

From Namche my next destination was to be Gokyo and its famed Emerald Lakes. Departing from Gokyo I went via the Everest View Hotel, for as its name suggests, it has a nice view of Mt. Everest on clear days. Luckily for me it was a clear day, so here I relaxed for half an hour while I soaked in the view. More spectacular however, was the view of Ama Dablam. In local lore Ama Dablam means "Mothers Necklace", where the main pinnacle of the mountain represents the mother and the two smaller pinnacles are her loving arms wrapped around her child. To me, Ama Dablam is the most beautiful mountain in the Himalayas, and one that I captured a lot of with my camera. Ama Dablam aside, I felt a powerful sense of accomplishment to be sitting in sight of Mt. Everest, having carried myself here on my own without a group or a guide.

Major town Khumjung on the way to Gokyo

Major town Khumjung on the way to Gokyo

On this section of the Trek I befriended two other travellers, an Australian man and a Dutch man. The Australian was a photographer as well, and we had some nice chats together about photography gear. The dutch guy told us a story about his friend who had injured himself crossing a high pass, and how they had to recruit a group of eight porters to run his friend down the mountain. Meanwhile they were unluckily attacked by a wild yak, which was fended off by the porters throwing stones at it. In the end his friend was flown to Kathmandu by helicopter.

This section of the walk was far more desolate than the previous, and offered some truly spectacular mountain views. The trail hugged the cliff edge all the way up the valley from Namche to Gokyo. The path was predominately less than one meter wide, and dropped off sharply down the valley in to the Dudh Kosi, a river fed by glaciers and lakes high up in the mountain. Dzo, a working animal which is crossed between Yak and Cow, are driven through this section of the trek, so you have to be sure to let them pass on the valley side of the trail, as they can easily bump you.

Around Gokyo

Second emerald lake of Gokyo

Second emerald lake of Gokyo

I spent a total of four days staying around Gokyo, which is at an altitude of 4800m. The tea house where I stayed, and was recommended to me by a few different people, saw quite a few solo travellers visit, so each night I had someone to talk to. There were quite a few interesting characters that passed through; including a European who had been to Nepal 22 times, every year for the past 22 years; he spoke Nepali fluently. The hostess of the teahouse each night cooked popcorn for us, from corn that was grown locally by her father, so it was quite a special treat.

View of Gokyo and third emerald lake from Gokyo Ri

View of Gokyo and third emerald lake from Gokyo Ri

Around Gokyo there are a few side treks which offer some fantastic scenic views. The first is the climb up to the top of Gokyo Ri; a dusty outcrop that juts up to 5400m altitude at the edge of Gokyo town. This is quite a spectacular vantage point as it offers 360 degree views of Himalayan mountains, including Mt. Everest. This view is considered to be one of the best in the region, with Lonely Planet claiming that such a view is usually reserved for Balloonists and rock climbers. The day that I visited had bright blue skies and very few clouds; it was the view for which I had trekked for weeks to see. I spent a few hours at the top just enjoying the view, before slowing descending down. At 5400m altitude, it was the highest that I had climbed in my life, and possibly the highest that I'll ever climb again. Let's see!

One of the key reasons for Gokyo's popularity is the six emerald lakes which surround it. They are truly breathtaking with hues of blues shouldn't belong to any body of water. When you are walking in to Gokyo you pass three of the lakes, and you can see the remaining three as part of a side walk. Unfortunately it is quite a long trek to get to the sixth, so most people who visit will only see the first five, and this was the same for me as well. I tried to trek up to the sixth lake, but I was alone; no one else walked that far, and as I was getting closer to the lake a big storm-front was starting to roll in, and being three hours away from the town I decided to walk back. This was one of the most special days of walking for me, it offered some amazing mountain views, due to the glacial highway breaking all possible interruptions.

Glacier moraine leading to Gokyo Town

Glacier moraine leading to Gokyo Town

The final side trek that I did while staying in Gokyo was through the glacier itself. I spent one day walking through the glacial moraine and back again, just to experience what it was like. It was like walking on the moon, with rocks creaking around you, and rubble cascading off nearby hidden ledges. There are many small glacial lakes through the moraine, some of which I hiked down to see. The lakes were bordered by walls of solid ice veined with blue cracks and the water was a steely grey colour, with immense blocks of ice breaking their surfaces. The walls of ice are the only hint of the former glacier, most of the time all that you saw was the grey rubble, ground away in millennia past in to a fine sand by a long since retreated glacier. However, if you attempt to walk up to the sixth emerald lake, then you can see the remainder of the glacier. It is a shadow of its former glory, it took hours of trekking along the moraine before even seeing the start of it.

Over Renjo La

Yak frozen in the early morning

Yak frozen in the early morning

From Gokyo I trekked back to Namche Bazaar via Renjo La. I had the option to trek back via Cho La and take the Everest Base Camp route back to Namche Bazaar, but I really wasn't interested in walking with vast numbers of large tour groups, and to have to sleep in dining rooms on account of the guides booking everything up. But aside from that fact, I was strongly interested in the historical element of the Renjo side of the region. Renjo was an ancient trading route between Nepal and Tibet, but closed down since the Chinese invaded. Renjo is also in the rain shadow of the mountain range and therefore has much harsher vegetation, with rich orange grasses, green mosses, and sparkling graphite coloured stone. I can understand that it's not everyones preference to be in such a desolate area, but that is why I wanted to see it; to witness harshness which brings to your mind images of Tibet.

The trek itself was quite a challenge; you first had climb 600m in altitude from Gokyo to the top of the pass, then descend 1000m down to the next town. There is no teahouse from Gokyo for eight hours of trekking, which means you have to carry your own food. This is in comparison to pretty much everywhere else in the region where you have guaranteed food stops every three to four hours, and often less.

For this section of the trek I was walking with a Polish couple that I met at Gokyo. They were a lovely couple, and helped me with my injured knee; I slipped over and strained it when walking down from the Renjo pass.

From Gokyo it took three days to get back to Namche Bazaar, but could easily have been down in two.

Staying at Namche Bazaar

Now that I had finished the main portion of my trek I had some time to kill and decided to take a rest stop in Namche Bazaar. In Namche I spent some days writing articles about my past year, and about my plans for the future. A lot of those articles you can now see on this site. This was quite timely, as I had caught a light cold somewhere so it took me a few days to get over that.

Lawudo and Tengboche

Trail from Lawudo to Thame

Trail from Lawudo to Thame

For the final portion of my trek, my mum was going to come to visit me. She flew in to Lukla then hired a porter to carry her bag up to Namche Bazaar. At Namche Bazaar I took some of her extra weight and we trekked together up to Lawudo Gompa. Lawudo Gompa is quite famous within Tibetan Buddhism, as the head of the FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition), a prolific Buddhist organisation, is said to be a reincarnation of the Lawudo Lama. We spent two nights here with a visiting nun from Australia, and the nun who looks after the Gompa; Ani La. While we were staying here we helped to make water offerings to each of the Buddhas in the Gompa, a process which took a number of hours to complete, but was deeply spiritual.

View of Khumjung and Ama Dablam

View of Khumjung and Ama Dablam

From Lawudo my mum and I did a small trek through the mountains; we spent a week travelling between each of the major valleys in the region. First we visited Thame Monastery in the western valley; one of the biggest monasteries in the area. From Thame we trekked for two days to visit Phortse in the central valley; which was quite a challenge for my mum as the trail was long and steep, yet she made it through. I am proud of her as most trekkers are half her age, and mostly they give their bags to porters to carry. As is often the case, the most challenging day was one of the most beautiful; the trail we walked on was less than one meter wide and dropped off sharply down to river below, but offered unparalleled views of the deep valley and the soaring Himalayan mountain range. The final destination of our trek was to be Tengboche in the Eastern Valley; a major stop on the way to Everest Base Camp. Tengboche is an awesome stopping point, perched on the shoulder of a mountain, with steep climbs in to and out of it, and within Tenboche is a beautiful Tibetan Gompa. I think we may have gotten the last room in all of Tengboche as we arrived quite late and normally it is booked up in advance by the big tour groups. We checked every teahouse in the village for a room, and the very last one in town had just one room left; we were very lucky for we had just finished quite an exhausting day of walking.

Returning to Kathmandu

Walking past Tengboche Monastery

Walking past Tengboche Monastery

From Tengboche all that was left was a two day walk back to Lukla then a flight to Kathmandu. These final two days were very nice; completely different to the higher altitude areas. Gone were the spectacular mountain views, replaced by thriving local communities nestled in green temperate forests. By this point we had left behind the harshness for which the Himalayas is famous for.

Walking up to Tengboche Monastery

Walking up to Tengboche Monastery

On the 11th of November, our tiny plane leaped from the infamously short Lukla runway to carry us away from the Himalayas and my five weeks of trekking. Such a journey it was! Thinking back on it now I sorely miss my time there, and am blown away by the memory of snow capped peaks, Yaks, Naks, Himalayan Thar, and smiling villagers. Yet at the time I was happy to be finally returning to the creature comforts of our modern world.

Fin!

Thanks for reading! After my time trekking I partook in a one month meditation course. If you are interested in that journey, then please read about it here.

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