Kanchenjunga Conservation Area Trek (part 1)
Updated: Feb 26
For nearly two years the trekking industry in Nepal has been paralyzed by the pandemic, but at the start of the Autumn 2021 season infection rates had dropped and vaccination rates increased, and the Nepali government withdrew restrictions on foreign tourists. So it was with great excitement that we were able to set off on a trek to visit the remote and spectacular region of Kanchenjunga in the far East of Nepal.
Kanchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world standing at 8,586m, and little visited because of its distance from Kathmandu and the long trek needed to reach it, but the few who do venture there are rewarded by a beautiful journey through a pristine conservation area. On our trek we walked for 24 days (including rest/acclimatisation days) to see Kanchenjunga, starting and finishing the trek at the village of Taplejung and visiting both the North and South base camps. Shorter itineraries taking a jeep further up the valley or visiting only one base camp are possible but this time allowed us to more fully explore the Conservation area. We stayed in teahouses throughout our trip without problem even at this time when we were some of the only visitors to the area in 2 years - we had checked before travelling with local family hotel owners, Tshring and Nupu Lama, who very kindly advised us the area was ready for visitors and helped us with planning our trip.
Our route is shown below (click for an interactive map for more detail) and an itinerary here.
Day 1: Kathmandu to Ilam via Bhadrapur
After receiving clear PCR test reports and obtaining special permits for the Kanchenjunga region we caught the short flight from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur. It was a sticky 35 degrees as we stepped off the plane but our jeep was waiting, and we set off to Illam, in the tea plantations of Nepal, a very scenic drive of 3 hours.
Day 2: Ilam to Taplejung (1441m)
The road from Ilam to Taplejung, is spectacular, winding up and down the beautiful jungle covered mountainside. But the highlight of the jeep ride was the first glimpse of Kanchenjunga (8586m) towering on the skyline and nearby Jannu peak (7711m) that we would also see close up on our trek .
Reaching Taplejung around lunchtime, we had planned to set off to Mitlung that afternoon but after meeting our porter, Nabin, he suggested it would be better to wait till the morning as the hotel at Mitlung was full due to work at the new hydropower plant there. So instead we walked up to the hill tower view-point, passing the site of a sad memorial to the 23 helicopter crash victims that died in 2006 while returning from a ceremony to hand over stewardship of the conservation area to the local community (read more about the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area project here).
Views of Taplejung from the 2006 helicopter crash memorial (slide for more images)
Day 3: Taplejung to Chiruwa (1270m) - 20km, 6hrs
It's possible to take a jeep higher up the valley to Sekathum but we chose to walk as it is a quiet, track through spectacular scenery and pretty villages. Passing the new hydro power station being constructed near Mitlung we reached Simwa for lunch. The afternoon was hot and humid as we continued above the river Tamor upto Chiruwa, arriving late afternoon just before the rain.
Views of the River Tamor and the new hydro power station at Mitlung en-route to Chiruwa
Day 4: Chiruwa to Sekathum (1669m) - 11km
Overnight rain cleared by morning and after an early breakfast of banana pancake we set off for Sekathum. The route continued to follow the Tamor river, through rice fields, cardamom plantations and bamboo forest. Cardamom is an important cash crop for the local people and export for Nepal. We passed through a checkpoint at Taplechok, officially entering the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area. The local community look after the conservation area well, welcoming visitors warmly. The path was paved and in great condition, as was most of the route to North Base camp; mostly separate from the jeep track up the valley though joining to cross the river at a new bridge.
Following the river Tamor to Sekathum through cardamom plantantions, rice fields and bamboo forest
Day 5: Sekathum to Gyabala (2730m) - 15km, 6hrs
We continued up the Tamor river gorge. The river was in full flood and at times the path ran along a ledge close enough to feel its full power.
After the first 7km, we reached Amjilosa where the path turns into steep steps, climbing the next 8km to the yak pasture at Gyabala. A very scenic and tiring day!
Views en-route to Gyabala of the Tamor gorge
We were lucky to enjoy singing and dancing at our delightful hotel, Hotel Shingi Namjong!
Day 6: Gyabala to Ghunsa (3600m), 11km, 4hrs
We continued to climb steeply through forest paths along the river. It was a huge thrill as two small black bears ran across the path just ahead of us. "Bhalu! Bhalu!" Nabin, our porter shouted, as amazed as we were.
From Phale up to Ghunsa the valley widens and we left the forest behind, but not the rain, which again started just as we arrived.
Gyabala to Ghunsa
Here we would stay for a couple of nights to acclimatize to the high altitude and take day hikes - climb high, sleep low! At the recently built and very comfortable Dzonga Family House we were greeted with tea and amazing cakes that could have been served in the tea room of Raffles, Singapore where Tshring, the owner, worked for a number of years!
Days 7 and 8: Ghunsa (3425m)
Ghunsa is the largest village in the valley en route to Kanchenjunga North Base Camp and a good place to stay an extra night or two to acclimatize, experience the local culture and in our case also to wait for the right weather window before reaching the high mountains - we wanted to make sure we saw Kanchenjunga in clear skies if possible. Tshring's father is the head lama at the ancient Tashi Choeling Gompa, one of the most important gompas in Eastern Nepal, which he took us to visit. We also had a Momos cooking lesson and were privileged to be invited to attend a Tibetan wedding ceremony.
The Tashi Choeling Gompa at Ghunsa and a Tibetan Wedding procession
While in Ghunsa we took a couple of day hikes to the view point above the village and towards Dudh Pokhari, a milky glacial lake. This second hike passes through rhododendron forest and hillsides covered in azalea before climbing to the ridge of the spectacular Yamtari glacier moraine. Dudh Pokhari is a full day's hike and we didn't reach it ... next time!
Day hikes above Ghunsa
Day 9: Ghunsa to Kambachan (4200m)
After a couple of days in Ghunsa, the weather was improving and we headed up the valley, through larch forest (one of the biggest areas of Himalayan Larch in Nepal) , across a landslide and climbing above the tree line to the yak pasture at Kambachan where we were staying at the delightful Kanchenjunga White House owned by Nupu Sherpa, Tshring's brother (@nupu1990) . It is another 700m elevation gain from Ghunsa, so staying in Kambachan at least a couple of nights is essential for acclimatization, but there are two day hikes which should not be missed so we planned to stay 3 nights.
Larch forest above Ghunsa and our teahouse, the Kanchenjunga White House
Day 10: Day hike from Kambachan to Jannu Peak view point (4550m) , 4hrs return
Waking to a beautiful morning, we set off on our day hike towards the base camp for Jannu Peak (7711m), one of the iconic mountains (and most difficult to climb!) of the Kanchenjunga region. We walked along the rim of the glacier morraine (an exhilarating route!), until we got to the view point, passing through sacred Limbu ground. We were warned that the expedition currently at base camp had come into conflict with the Limbu community who believe eating meat or drinking alcohol will bring disaster to their region - fortunately we had done neither!
Jannu Peak was everything we had heard and more, and with no other trekkers in the valley we sat in peaceful solitude, looking at the majestic sight for sometime before we were able to tear ourselves away and descend back to Kambachan. This hike alone is a reason to come to Kanchenjunga!!
Day hike to Jannu Peak viewpoint from Kambachan
Day 11: Day hike from Kambachan to Nuptu Lake (4950m)
It is worth staying another day at Kambachan to fully acclimatize and explore more of the valley before heading up to base camp.
The 6 hr hike to Nuptu Lake and back is spectacular but few visitors stay long enough to do it . Following the river up the valley there are views back to Jannu and at the top, two beautiful blue glacier lakes... a peaceful and spiritual place!
Day hike to Nuptu Lake from Kambachan
Day 12: Kambachan to Lhonak (4770m), 4hrs
Today we hiked to Lhonak, another 700m altitude gain, the last stop before Kanchenjunga North Base Camp. It was another clear morning with spectacular views of various snow peaks, including Mera Peak (6334m) and the spectacular Gimigela (6437m), but Kanchenjunga stays hidden until we reach base camp. We crossed a couple of landslides and there were some tricky stream crossings. There is a new tea house at Lhonak owned by Tshring and Nupu's cousin, and even at this altitude, its a comfortable place to stay.
Views on route to Lhonak from Kambachan
Day 13: Kanchenjunga North Base Camp (5147m)
We left at first light to make sure we had the best chance of seeing Kanchenjunga in a clear sky - it is about 8km up to the view point but at high altitude we would be walking slowly! It was a beautiful, frosty morning as we climbed higher along the edge of the glacier morraine, crossing landslides and multiple streams.
After 3 hours we arrived at the view point to north base camp, also known as Pangpema, and were rewarded by spectacular views of Kangchenjunga Main (8,586m), Yalung Kang (8,505m) and Kangbachen (7,903m). Breathtaking and definately worth the long journey! Expeditions no longer attempt the ascent of Kanchenjunga from the North as it is easier from the South but in our opinion it is the most beautiful face! We lingered, making the most of the perfect peace and tranquility, perhaps regretting we didn't have a tent to camp here, before retracing our steps to Lhonak.
Our trek would take us to the other side of Kanchenjunga, to Oktang Base camp but to do that we needed to return to Ghunsa and then cross the Selele Pass to the next valley.
We had a few days to spare because we hadn't needed to quarantine on arrival in Nepal so we took our time returning to Ghunsa, stopping a night in Kambachan and enjoying the beautiful route down without rushing - after all we had come a long way to see this! An extra day in Ghunsa allowed us to relax, take a hot shower (for the first time in a while!), wash and dry our clothes and prepare for the next stage of our journey.
More beautiful views as we returned from Lhonak down to Ghunsa
See our next post soon for the South Base camp trek and return to Taplejung!