My three days of getting ready to trek alone in Nepal went something like this:
- Blunder around Kathmandu to get a feel for the city
- Talk to experienced people, buy an Everest map, and plan a trekking route
- Book a flight to Lukla (the airport nearest Everest National Park)
- Get trekking permits
- Gear up
- Store stuff that wasn’t going to be carried while trekking alone
- Eat too much dal bhat
- Regret eating too much dal bhat
I did indeed use three full days in Kathmandu to get situated, haggle for gear, and prepare for some trekking alone in Everest National Park.
Arriving in Kathmandu
Listening to Bob Seger’s “I Think I’m Going to Kathmandu” on repeat every day for months does strange things to a man. I’m pretty sure it made my beard grow. Either way, I erupted into a fit of anticipatory giggles when my flight from Thailand touched down in Kathmandu.
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport was in a perpetual state of riot. Us new arrivals pushed and elbowed for position in the lengthy immigration queue. Officers couldn’t cull the chaos so they chewed toothpicks and observed.
Running the KTM Airport Gauntlet
This wasn’t my first romp in South Asia, so I knew what to do. After getting stamped in, I entered the fray at Baggage Claim. Young men argued angrily with each other over who would get to carry my luggage (for a tip) even though I had declined numerous times.
I shouldered my backpack and boldly strode past them into the parking lot where rogue taxi drivers immediately descended. They honked horns, waved, and ran toward me as an anxious, mustached mob.
They were ready to tear me apart. Maybe each would take a separate limb to my hotel and I would be required to pay four fares. These situations are stressful, but I knew the desperation was merited. Nepal had suffered two devastating earthquakes in 2015 that shut down spring climbing season and caused a massive loss of income.
One young driver seemed timid and polite, so I asked him to wait while I got some cash. Senior drivers were already giving him crap about jumping the taxi-driver pecking order; he would inevitably have to pay some of them a cut of his fare. I ended up giving him a tip the other drivers wouldn’t need to know about.
The ATM was in a cramped, glass booth outside the airport. I could feel hundreds of eyes silently molesting me as the machine spat a sizable wad of colorful Nepalese rupees my direction.
I had left Chiang Mai (and the Songkran Festival) in April—the hottest month in Thailand. My shorts and flip-flops were good enough for Kathmandu, but I would need to do some serious gearing up for trekking in the Himalayas.
Three busy days of getting ready to trek alone in Nepal ensued.
Setting Up a Base in Thamel
After the taxi, I found myself in the neighborhood of Thamel, Kathmandu’s well-worn traveler slum. I was about a 30-minute walk north of the infamous Freak Street near Durbar Square, heart of the Hippie Trail in the 60s and 70s.
Besides a little nostalgia, there isn’t much going on along Freak Street these days.
Thamel, on the other hand, was jammed. It certainly wasn’t as frustrating as Paharganj in New Delhi (no kids threw rocks at me this time), but there was more than enough hassle.
Like McCleod Ganj, home of the Tibetans in North India, Thamel also suffers a never-ending soundtrack of honking horns. Frustrated drivers hold them down for the duration of every drive. Meanwhile, us pedestrians, fearful of their wrath, scurry out of the way with fingers in ears.
I decided early on that if I were going to get run over, I would at least make sure it was by a Royal Enfield. Many of the vintage British motorcycles rumbled through the streets. They were a beautiful sight.
On my inaugural scouting of Thamel, I became lost in the chaos. No one I asked had heard of my small budget hotel situated at the end of an alley. With no map or internet access, I wandered aimlessly until finally finding an intersection that looked familiar enough to get me back to the hotel.
I was in need of a SIM card and some help from Google Maps. We’ll cover how to get a SIM card in Kathmandu in the next post about gearing up for solo trekking in Nepal.
Choosing a Budget Hotel in Thamel
I chose the 2-star Hotel Silver Home in Thamel for three reasons:
1. I was on a serious budget, and a room cost less than $12 a night.
2. They were located at the end of a dead-end alley off the main drag
3. They had a luggage storage room where I could leave my stuff while trekking alone
The second star of their 2-star rating might have been generous. The door to my second-floor room was broken. The sink didn’t work, and I had to keep the shower drain blocked when not in use—creatures had a tendency to crawl out of it. The power was out more than it was on, but technically, that wasn’t their fault. You don’t get much generator time for $12 a night.
All that said, the location was perfect, and more importantly, the men working there were nice enough and didn’t rob me. That’s always a good thing.
What really sealed the deal was the fact that they offered a secure luggage storage room. I had to leave my laptop—the most important item in my possession second only to my passport—somewhere safe for three weeks.
Where to Store Stuff While Trekking Alone in Nepal
Even if you wanted to carry all your stuff along (you shouldn’t), most of the airlines that fly to Lukla enforce very strict weight limits. You’ll be lucky to get your necessary gear on board. More on that later.
So what is the best way to store valuables while on your trek?
The safest and most convenient option is to store everything at a reliable hotel or guesthouse. Of course, this means you’re committed to staying at the same hotel when you return from your solo trekking. That’s part of their incentive to not steal all your stuff.
They’ll probably want you to go ahead and make some reservations. I balked, mainly because I didn’t know for sure when I would return. Also, I didn’t want to pay in advance in case something in my luggage came up missing.
Make sure they offer a locking storage room that only staff can access—at least that limits their ability to blame theft on other guests. Some hotels simply store backpacks behind the reception desk, but that is no bueno.
I’m extra cautious now days because hostel staff members in Cusco stole a mobile phone from my stored bag while I was hiking to Machu Picchu.
Get a Lockable Duffel Bag
Next, you’ll want to get a locking duffel bag. I found a heavy North Face (yeah, right) lockable bag in a nearby shop for $19. I didn’t haggle much because I asked the proprietor if he’d like it back to sell again when I returned from my trek in Everest National Park. He agreed, and three weeks later, I sold it back to him for $10. The shop owner was happy to potentially sell the bag again, and I was happy to get rid of it.
Outfitting shops often have the same (fake) items on offer. If one shop tells you they won’t want to buy the bag back later, try a few more before buying.
When storing your stuff before going on a trek alone in Nepal, prepare it for some serious abuse. I wrapped clothing left behind around my laptop. I meticulously secured everything to survive a toss off the roof.
As far as you know, your duffel will be hung from a chain and used as a heavy bag to train future Nepali kickboxers.
When I retrieved my bag weeks later, everything was intact. It was, however, flat as a pancake and located at the very bottom of a heavy pile of backpacks.
This is a picture of dal bhat in a proper restaurant in Kathmandu. It isn’t usually so lavish at tea houses along the trail.
Eating Dal Bhat in Nepal
I ate it daily, as do many Nepali people. The ubiquitous meal is served in restaurants from Kathmandu to Gorak Shep, last stop before Everest Base Camp. A mound of basmati (or some other grain) is served in the middle of a thali platter or plate, then surrounded by small portions of dal, vegetables, curries, chutney, yogurt, pickles, soup, or whatever the kitchen has that day.
Refills are often included in the price of dal bhat! No one told me refills were free, but I finally figured it out when I saw the restaurant staff dutifully making rounds from table to table with a pot and ladle.
A breakfast menu seen in Kathmandu
Be Ready to Eat a Lot of Dal Bhat
Personally, I enjoy eating rice surrounded by an assortment of fun, turmeric-tinted things. I cook that way at home. But even this hardened, rice-celebrating, curry-consuming veteran grew weary of dal bhat.
Be warned: In many of the high-elevation tea lodges, dal bhat may be the only viable option. I say viable because menus are often lengthy and ambitious. You are given some semblance of choice. But as a wise admiral in a galaxy far, far away once exclaimed: It’s a trap!
Problem is, that relatively pricey $12 spaghetti Bolognese you splurge on at 15,000 feet won’t be as advertised. You’ll probably be served rice noodles (because Sherpas didn’t carry up pasta) with sticky ketchup on top (because there are no tomatoes) and cabbage (because it’s the only vegetable at the moment) without meat (because hardly anyone has meat other than yak steaks).
Better to eat what the Sherpas eat so often. Stick with dal bhat. Or if “Sherpa stew” is available, try it for a hearty treat.
A less-lavish version of dal bhat as seen in tea house lodges along the trail.
Although I loved dal bhat the first five times, it was old news by my twentieth time. If I could do the Kathmadu gear-up phase of my trip all over again, I’d eat some different things while I had the opportunity.
Fortunately, none of the delicious food I enjoyed in Kathmandu made my list of scary travel foods. Steamed Tibetan momo dumplings don’t stand a chance near me.
More importantly, snacks (as we’ll cover in the next post about independent trekking in Nepal) are of paramount importance.
Be ready. As elevation increases, so does the monotony of your diet.
Getting Trekking Permits in Kathmandu
Here, things take a turn for the convoluted.
I heard the TIMS (Trekking Information Management System) was retired in 2018. But every site I researched while writing this—including this official government page about the TIMS card—says you need a TIMS card for trekking (alone or otherwise) in Nepal.
Recent comments on sites such as this one about getting trekking permits in Nepal say TIMS cards are no longer needed! The system was retired again during the pandemic.
Some of the comments also say that trekking alone in Nepal is no longer allowed; although, others contradict this. I have a feeling, like so many other things, it depends on the moods of the officials in the office that day.
Do your own research. Technically, you could simply find out directly from the source when you visit the Tourist Service Center to get all your trekking permits for Nepal. You’ll need to go there anyway.
Permits for Trekking in Everest National Park
The three permits I got for trekking alone in Everest National Park are:
- TIMS card (maybe): $17
- Sagarmatha National Park Permit: $28
- Khumbu Rural Municipality Permit (can also get it in Lukla): $16
People planning solo treks in the Annapurna region obviously need different permits.
In my opinion, the costs for trekking permits in Nepal are fair, especially given that you get to enjoy the most stunning mountain scenery on earth. If you’re going to the Mustang region, sorry, your 10-day trekking permit is going to cost $500! And that seems cheap compared to the $11,000 paid for an Everest climbing permit.
The Tourist Service Center in Kathmandu
You can get all your trekking permits at the Tourist Service Center, less than a 30-minute walk from Thamel. The location can be found on Google Maps as “Nepal Tourism Board.” Google says they open at 9 a.m. while the official TIMS page says 10 a.m.
If trekking during the busy season in April or May, I highly recommend getting there a little before 9 a.m. I arrived an hour before the musky office opened and was still third in line.
You’ll need to bring:
- Your passport
- Two passport-sized photos
- Proof of travel insurance that covers trekking
- A loose plan of your route
- Lots of patience.
Bureaucracy gets taken to an entirely new level in South Asia. I recommend bringing your own pen—even they were in high demand.
Beware of “Tourist Information Centers” or “TIMS Counters” around Thamel and other areas. They’ll simply step in as a middle man and charge you for paperwork you could have done yourself at the actual Tourist Service Center.
Is Trekking Alone in Nepal Allowed?
Yes, but be prepared for some hassle.
Officials at the Tourist Service Center will probably give you stress for wanting to trek alone in Nepal. They tried their best to talk me out of it. As a solo trekker, your TIMS card will be green instead of blue like those issued to people who are part of an organized trekking tour. It also costs more.
I can’t blame them. Trekking alone in Nepal is inherently risky. I did nearly freeze to death after getting lost in a winter storm alone. Even my somewhat simple day hike from Manali to Solang in North India went all kinds of wrong. The Himalayas know how to throw some serious curve balls.
But I got the feeling the officials’ motivation was mostly financial. They didn’t know I would be making donations of gear and money along the way.
Plus, they were hellbent to put me into contact with family members who were mountain guides. Even as I left the government building, agents ran outside to hand me business cards and shout prices for porters my direction.
If someone tells you that planning to trek alone in Nepal is forbidden, push back. I don’t believe this is a hard rule. Try telling them you plan to hire a guide in Lukla.
What Is a TIMS Card?
Update: There have been rumors that the TIMS Card system was discontinued. Check at the Tourist Service Center.
You’ll need to carry your folding, laminated TIMS (Trekking Information Management System) card with you at all times. Officials asked me for it at a couple of checkpoints.
Along with raising some funds and keeping track of who is where, the real purpose of a TIMS card is more likely similar to the reason I wore dog tags around my neck in the Army. Sadly, falls and elevation sickness claim a few trekkers every year.
Booking a Flight From Kathmandu to Lukla
Online booking for the small, charter flights to Lukla isn’t really a thing—at least it wasn’t in 2016.
I’m willing to bet, as a solo trekker in Nepal, you still only have two real options for booking a flight to Lukla:
- Book a flight to Lukla at the counter in the airport
- Book a flight to Lukla through a travel agency
I chose to book through a travel agent, mainly because I didn’t want to take transportation all the way back to the airport. Countless travel agent offices are scattered throughout Thamel. I found one behind a small street vegetable market.
As you would expect, booking with a travel agent requires paying a commission. But the $20 or so spent was well worth not spending half a day in Kathmandu’s traffic. I calculated that my flight from Kathmandu to Lukla cost around $5 per minute in the air. Ouch.
Note: There are some ways to get from Kathmandu to Lukla without flying, but all require overland transportation plus 1 – 4 days of additional trekking.
After the transaction (paid for in cash), I was handed a paper ticket. The handwritten scrawl supposedly guaranteed me a seat on a flight to Lukla in two days. I would be flying into the “most dangerous airport in the world” high in the Himalayas with an airline that didn’t even have a website.
Now the clock was ticking. It was time to gear up for solo trekking in Nepal!