Kanchenjunga Circuit North To South Trek Report May 2016
Two years ago I was part of a camping trek to Kanchenjunga but this time I wanted a new experience. So I decided to do a teahouse trek in the same area to compare the experiences. This would be exciting!
First off, I used my Delorme Reach Device (Must in your packing list for Kanchenjunga trekking) to track all the trail information. Which you can find on the online kanchenjunga trek map.
Day 01: Drive from Kathmandu to Fikkal
At 6.30 am we left from Thamel by private jeep to Taplejung. At 9 am we stopped for a breakfast of fried beans and boiled eggs at Nepalthok and at 11 am we stopped in Sindhulimadi for lunch.
By that time we had traveled 153 km from Thamel. Yes, it takes time on Nepal’s small highways which twist and turn sharply. Which brings us to another problem motion sickness! We had to deal with that also at Sindhulimadi.
To add to our stomach clenching ride, after lunch we reached the big east to west highway where vehicles with the slogan “slow drive long life” painted on their side are often the fastest ones on the road.
However, the road can be very scenic at times like when we passed through the Koshi Barrage at the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve.
Only 442 km from Thamel, we reached Birtamod at 5 pm. This is the end of the highway for us, now again we were facing narrow, curving and uphill roads to Ilam, the tea plantation area of Nepal. Driving slowly we reach Fikkal, another 46 km, or 1 hour 40 minutes, on.
Here we stayed in Hotel Sekhar which offers rooms with attached bathrooms or rooms without facilities for $10 and $7 respectively. And awesome food! See the Kanchenjunga circuit trek food menu.
Day 02: Drive from Fikkal to Taplejung
We started from Fikkal at 7.20 am, stopping in Pawa Khola for breakfast at 9 am. But breakfast is not actually on the menu. For the hearty truck drivers and other highway drivers the restaurants start cooking meat from 5 am. So we had to make do with noodles and wait a whole hour for that!
At 2 pm we reached Taplejung. We had travelled 679 km from Thamel! Here we stayed in Hotel Pathivara and Taplejung Guest House at Rs 600 for a room with an attached bathroom and Rs 400 for a room without facilities.
Since the guest house was so busy with a seminar they could only offer us dal bhat. They do have another menu when they are less busy. And there are local café style places (teahouses) to eat momo and noodles in the village.
Day 03: Taplejung to Chirwa
We started at 8:00 am from Taplejung, stopped in Linkhim (Also, called Siwa) at 12:00 for lunch. Then we reached Chirwa to 5:00 pm. This is what we found:
The first part of the trek follows the road, then take the left path downhill to reach Hangdewa VDC by avoiding the rest of the road on a steep downwards shortcut. When you reach the bottom, it is flat to Mitlung and Siwa, then a mix of gentle ups and downs till you reach Chirwa. On the way, there are some teashops on the flat areas, but there are only two hotels in Chirwa. At Rs 200 per person the hotels offer either dal bhat or noodles in a variety of ways (noodle soup, chowmein or thukpa). There is no other choice. What you can expect to pay for the food is Rs 300 for dal bhat, Rs 250 for thukpa, Rs 100 for a litre of hot water and Rs 40 for a big cup of black tea. Add Rs 50 if you want a cup of hot powdered milk.
If you are carrying your phone, the Ncell network works in Chirwa but NTC will stop working approximately thirty minutes before Chirwa. There is electricity here so you can recharge from the socket in your room.
Day 04: Chirwa to Sekathum
“Mero eak mana raksi ra half plate chowmein, kati bhayo?” or “How much for my local raksi and chowmein?” was the conversation at 7 am in the morning.
We started walking at 8:30 am but were not sure whether we should go up to Lelep or to Sekathum. At 9:50 am we reach Tapethok. From here your restricted Kanchenjunga trek permit starts. It is information overload in Tapethok, with so many signboards in one place where as there was hardly any on the trail itself!
The police checkpoint was closed at Tapethok, now we are supposed to have our permit checked in Ghunsa.
From Tapethok it is flat 30 minute walk then 30 minutes uphill to reach this small village, where we found a teahouse under construction. Since it was 11 am we took the opportunity to see what was on offer dal bhat, fried rice or instant noodles. Fried rice cost us Rs 75 and tea was Rs 20. Very reasonable and additional fried rice included in the price if you wanted. Nepali style!
After lunch we started trekking again. We decided to go to Sekathum so we didn’t need to climb up to Lelep. If you do want to go to Sekathum, there is a trail to Sekathum which avoids uphill walking to Lelep. From about 30 minutes before Lelep there is a small trail on the right hand side that leads you down to a small suspension bridge, 20 minutes away. From here the trail goes left to Olangchun Gola, which is part of Lumba Sumba Pass Trek and right to Sekathum. The bridge crosses the confluence of the Tamor and Ghunsa Rivers.
At 2 pm we reached Sekathum where we found there is only one hotel, which stands out in its blue and white colour. Despite the fact you can see pumpkin, cabbage, maize and spinach growing in the fields, the hotel does not have a food menu yet. The usual dal bhat (Rs 300), thukpa (Rs 100) and tea (Rs 30) was available. Remember to ask for tea without sugar if you don’t want it automatically in your cup!
With a good solar back-up you can charge your equipment here at no extra cost.
However, do not be surprised if your room lights turn on and off unexpectedly. See the picture below:
They have designed the system in such a way that one bulb can light two rooms and multiple switches in the different rooms control that one bulb. So someone in the next room may be turning your light on and off!
Don’t forget to bring a small padlock for your room as they may or may not have one for your use.
Day 05: Sekathum to Amjilosa
We start at 7:30 am from Sekathum. I note down that at 8:48 am we encounter the first trekker on his way down. He was from the Czech Republic and bit disappointed that he could not cross the pass due bad weather.
At 9.30 am we reach Jaubari, where there is a big waterfall to enjoy.
We moved on and by 10 am had reached a place with two small teashops offering food, but no accommodation. Instant noodle soup was Rs 50 and tea Rs 25. From here it’s a steep ascent to Amjilosa. We started the ascent at 11.04 am and reached Amjilosa at 2 pm. There is one bridge but no settlements on the way. With no water on route, make sure you have plenty of water with you.
There are two teahouses in Amjilosa. I highly recommend to stay in Chiring Kipa Guest House, the first one in your left. The other one is bit old and always noisy. I heard guides say that the owner start drinking from early morning and fights with his wife all day. Best avoid it!
In the new guest house they have a cow and you can drink fresh milk. Also, they have muesli and tsampa for breakfast. Chapati is available with jam, honey and local butter. It was nice to have a change in the menu! We bought a chicken at Rs 1,500 including cooking charge. It was maybe 1 to 1.5 kg. If you really want to eat more dal bhat, it is Rs 400. Noodles are Rs 100 and one egg will cost you Rs 50!
Here you can charge your mobile phone from one fixed universal charger (Hopefully will be still functioning!) which supports most mobiles except iPhone 5 and higher. There is no other way to charge anything in this guest house.
Day 06 Amjilosa to Ghunsa
If you’re on a regular trip, you would normally camp at Gyabla but since we were fast we decided to go Ghunsa, it was a long day.
We started out at 7 am and reached the Sherpa Hotel at Mindhum (downhill and flat) at 8.30 am, too early for breakfast.
From here you can traverse to Torongding on the south side of Kanchenjunga, avoiding the high Sele Le Pass. But you need to be self-sufficient there is completely nothing in between.
At 10:50 am we encountered another group, two guys and a guide who had done the trek the opposite way, from south to north. And at 11.12 am, after a steep uphill trail, we reached Gyabla where we saw many jokpes, which are a cross between a yak and a cow.
As we were aware it was still a long way to Ghunsa, we all ordered the same dish to speed things up, unlimited chowmein with egg (Rs 450). There was also thukpa with egg on offer (Rs 350).
At 1 pm we started towards Ghunsa again. Before reaching the Tibetan settlement of Phole, there was a landslide area which took us 15 minutes to cross. Phole has a monastery, two hotels, electricity and a yak pasture! We reached there at 4.11 pm.
Now all we had to do was follow the electric poles to reach Ghunsa. On the way we came across a memorial to the tragic helicopter crash where 22 people died, including the renowned historian, Harka Gurung, several top WWF personnel and the Nepal Forestry Minister.
Finally we arrived in Ghunsa at 5.42 pm where we met another group from Magical Nepal – the Hacking Family and Hiliory. We stayed in the Peaceful Guest House while the other group stayed next door.
At that point we hadn’t decided whether to have a rest day here or not, but on hearing that the hotel owner, a member of KCAP and responsible for issuing the conservation permits for Kanchenjunga, was currently in Lhonak, with a team of police and other officers to bring back a dead snow leopard, we decided to stay another day to see this.
Ghunsa is the first place after Taplejung with a food menu. And they have an electric hot shower, a trek shop and post card service! . With every house in Ghunsa having a green house, fresh green spinach was available.
Day 07: Acclimatization day in Ghunsa
On our acclimatization day we walked up to a view point above the monastery, which took us an hour and 20 minutes. We spent an hour at the viewpoint waiting for the weather to clear. We could just see views of Phole, Ghunsa and Sele Le from the top. We heard there was a big group turning back from the Sele Le Pass because they could not cross due to bad weather. So we crossed our fingers for our own crossing!
We purchased some freshly cut goat in the police station for Rs 800 per kilo, and were charged Rs 200 for the hotel to cook it for us. While waiting, I helped Aangmu, the owners son, with his grade 3 maths homework.
Later the team arrived back at Ghunsa with the dead snow leopard and horn of a Himalayan Blue Sheep. While in the conservation area office, a guy arrived from Vietnam. You just never know who you will meet on the trail!
Day 08: Ghunsa to Khambachen
We start at 7:15 am in the morning. At 9:36 am we reached a new teashop, which is under construction. Until that point we didn’t see any settlement between Ghunsa and Khambachen. After the teashop the trail goes up and then flattens out. But there is another big landslide section. This one is active and you need to be very careful!
Check how to cross the landslide between Khambachen and Ghunsa safely.
It took us four and half hour to reach Khambachen one hour up, the rest pretty flat. In case the landslide situation gets worse there is alternative trail from the other side of the river which takes 30 minutes longer.
While we were in Khambachen we met a group of two trekkers with eight field staff, on a camping trek. They were on their way down to Ghunsa.
In Khambachen there are three teahouses but the best one belongs to a guy called Norbu. The Khambachen White Horse Lodge, has a great menu, Norbu is a great and fast cook! If you want to spend an extra day here and make a day trip to Jannu Peak Base Camp, ask Norbu for a pack lunch and bridge to cross Ghunsa River.
We stayed together with the Hacking family and Hiliory. Rooms are Rs 800 for a triple, Rs 500 for a double and Rs 300 for a single. But there is nowhere to charge your equipment here.
Day 09: Khambachen to Lhonak
We started at 7:12 am from Khambachen, and at 8:42 am reached the landslide section. Just be extra careful when crossing any landslide. There are some ups and downs on the way to Lhonak but it is mainly flat. We reached Lhonak at 11:20 am.
I got a cold coke and lay down in the grassy meadow under the sun and watchful gaze of 39 (I counted them) Blue Sheep. I took a nap for an hour until the Hacking family and Hiliory arrived around 1:40 pm.
The Lhonak Guest House is the best there is with solar lights in the guest rooms and very thick mattresses and warm blankets. There is no menu at the guest house and no toilet either! There are, in fact, no toilets in Lhonak. Toilet under the sky!
Also, you cannot charge anything in Lhonak. But since it was warm and sunny I used my solar charger to charge my iPad, GoPro, Delorme Reach Device, mobile, and power bank. I ended up charging stuff for other people also including a power bank and pocket digital camera. Yes, it was sunny!
Day 10: Lhonak to Pangpema and back to Khambachen
We started very early in the morning with a packed lunch.
After three hours of walking we got our first view of Kanchenjunga! And at Pangpema we had a very clear view of the mountain. It took 4 and a half hours to get to this view point but less than 3 hours to get back to Lhonak.
After lunch we stared down to Khambachen, around 3 hours walk. We reached Khambachen at 4.16 pm. Same guest house, same team, and same great hospitality!
Day 11: Khambachen to Ghunsa
On this day we started at 7:08 am and reach Ghunsa at 10:43 am, in perfect weather, with a great view of Jannu Peak.
At Ghunsa we had the chance to do some laundry, take a shower and spend a lazy day.
I checked the weather forecast with a Delorme Reach Device. This is a great way to check the weather for the day you want to go over the Sele le Pass. I bet you won’t find this detail elsewhere, check weather report when we cross Sele Le Pass!
It was snowing in the late afternoon, which made us question the viability of crossing the pass. The Vietnamese guy decided to quit and planned to head out the same way we had all come. The Hacking family and Hiliory were in a bit of a dilemma but we decided to stay true to our plan. Our team also decided that if other team didn’t want to go, we would cross to Cheram from Ghunsa avoiding the stay in Sele Le.
It was still snowing! So we had to wait and see the conditions. We let the owner of the Sele Le Guest House know we may stay in his place and he went to open it for us (He lives next to the Peaceful Guest House).
Day 12: Ghunsa to Sele Le Pass Camp
Starting at 7:45 am, we reached the top of the first hill at 9:58 am and were rewarded with a view of Gyabla, Phole, and Mirgin La Top. Thankfully, after that steep climb it flattened out for the next hour until a short uphill of twenty minutes. Here there is a pass with lot of prayers flags, and we finally reach Sele Le Base Camp at 12:04 am. No toilet (we are getting used to this now), no battery charging, only one teahouse with five rooms and no menu. The room was so cold that we all brought our mattresses to the dinning room and slept on the floor.
Price wise it was similar to Lhonak, expensive!
The Hacking family and Hiliory didn’t arrive, and we thought they went down the same way we had come. Or maybe they will try tomorrow?
Meantime, we set our breakfast time as 4.30 am next morning with a plan to leave at 5 am.
Day 13: Sele Le Pass Camp to Cheram
No one wake up until 4:45 am! Not even the owner of the teahouse. We ate noodle soup and start at 5:45 am towards the pass. We carried Tibetan bread and boiled eggs for lunch.
At 6:58 am we reach the bottom of Mirgin La Pass, from there it is fifty minute steep climb to the top, then a gentle section until we reach another pass called Sinion La. Another one hour and another pass; now I don’t even know the names, there are so many! We stop here for lunch, move on 10 minutes and there is another pass! It’s getting crazy now and visibility was down to a few meters in the snow. And it was cold!
From this fourth pass it is a steep downward trail. Painful on the knees and toes. At eleven o’clock we reach a small pond at an elevation of 4,457 meters. And after ten minutes there is another pond, almost at the same elevation. A couple of minutes later we saw Cheram. But it was an hour of steep downhill again until we reached Cheram. By now it was noon, still snowing, still poor visibility and the trail was badly marked. It is very easy to get lost up there in that wild area!
We stayed in Yalung Khang Guest House. They are expanding but at the moment there is only four rooms. But the gas shower, telephone, ability to charge batteries and good dal bhat made up for the small size. On the down side, they do not yet have a menu and it was the first place we came to that asked for money for charging electric items. This would also be a good place to camp and there is a helipad.
Day 14: Cheram to Oktang Base Camp to Cheram
The teahouse in Ramche was closed. Which, as it turns out, was good. There is no toilet in the teahouse and as the building is made of stone it is very cold. Even if it is open when you visit, I recommend you do not stay there.
What we did instead was make a day trip from Cheram to Kanchenjunga South Base Camp. Basically we started at 5.24 am and reached base camp by 9.44 am as it is a very easy trek, 90 percent of which is flat.
Do watch out for guard dogs around the yak huts that you will see on the way. Best idea is, when you see a yak hut, blow a whistle to alert the yak herder or owner of the dog. Wait some time for them to tie up the dog.
I ran out of battery in my DSLR so I was disappointed I could not get any photographs. But as it was very cloudy, I didn’t feel as bad as I would have if the views were clear!
On a side note, despite food being expensive in Cheram, our pack lunch was well packed in silver foil!
Day 15: Cheram to Yamphuding
Our plan was to trek to Torongding and stay there overnight. So we set off at 7.10 am and reached at 10.03 am. Faced with the prospect of nothing to do for the whole day we decided to continue to Yamphuding. But we also knew there is nothing on route between Torongding and Yamphuding and it takes an average of 8 hours to get there, over steep ups and steep downs! But we decided it was better than doing nothing all day. But first lunch!
There was a menu at Torongding. Prices were similar to Cheram, a bit expensive. For example, fried rice cost Rs500 and Rs150 was the price of a fried egg!
If you do decide to stay at Torongding, all the hotels there open on request, so it’s possible to go there even in the off-season.
We left Torongding at 11:28 am, walking downhill for twenty minutes, then a steep up to an elevation of 3,519 meters at the top before descending down to Yamphuding. It took us two and a half hours to reach the top. Twenty minutes of descent brought us to Lasiya Bhanjyang but unfortunately the teashop was closed. Which was as we expected really. Another hour and a half and we could see the village of Yamphuding on the right. It looked a long way to go! And the gorge was steep!
Day 16: Yamphuding to Happo Khola
We started to walk down the 1,620 m, cross a bridge and head towards Khebang. If you don’t cross the bridge, you will find yourself on the trail back to Taplejung via Mamangkhe.
Then it’s a steep four hundred meters up, which took us one complete hour. Then descend down to 1,825 m in thirty minutes. And again up to 2,084 m in another hour. From the top it is down 40 minutes to Khebang at 1,701 m. Here we gratefully stop for lunch. It was cheap for seven plates of fried instant noodles and four eggs the total was Rs 875!
Thankfully, after all that up and down, from Khebang to Khamdime is very easy trail. It is mostly flat. I saw some marks in the stones, red arrow pointing in the correct direction. Today no one will get lost! We start at two o’clock from Khebang. Roughly after two hour you will find two ways, choose the one down on your left and cross the bridge on your right. From here it’s a bit flat to Happo Khola where you can find some electrical shops and teashops along the way.
We stayed at the Buddha Hotel. There are two rooms, and a big dorm with five beds. We ended up paying Rs 500 for the accommodation and the food was fairly cheap at Rs 250 for dal bhat and a one kilo, well cooked chicken that cost Rs 600. Coca cola was almost the same price as in any town.
Day 17: Happo Khola to Birtamod Drive
We were told the reporting time for the bus was 3.30 am and the bus would depart at 4 am. Well, its Nepal, and Nepali time meant the bus only left at 5 am. The first hour was a nightmare of off the road driving, but thankfully at Ganesh Chowk, which we arrived at at 8.43 am, we entered the main highway between Birtamod and Taplejung. At 10 am we stopped for lunch at Hewa Khola. Dal bhat was Rs 150 and Rs 250 for vegetarian and non-vegetarian respectively. Finally we reached Birtamod at 5:15 pm.
We chose to stay in a hotel at the bus station for Rs 500 per room. But I recommend you spend a bit of time and find somewhere nicer to stay! Ask an electric rickshaw driver to take you to a nice hotel you deserve it!
We also deserved the fresh fruit and better restaurants we found here.
Jackie, Ruby and Youvine were planning to go to Darjeeling for 10 days then cross over into Bhutan. I decided to go with them to Darjeeling.
If not going to India, from Birtamod you can drive to Bhadrapur and from there catch a flight back to Kathmandu. Birtamod to Bhadrapur is 40 minutes drive, then a 45 minute flight back to Kathmandu.