Often times, when people write or film the mountains of Nepal, people hone in on the experience of Mount Everest – this piece is no exception. I find it prudent, though, to note the glamor and awe instilled by Mount Everest should not, and does not, detract from its surrounding landscapes. Nepal is notorious for its welcoming people, pristine landscapes, abundant and daunting mountain peaks, and the adventures to be had exploring them. For such a small country, it contains vast amounts of wilderness to explore, and tea house trekking is a practical way of probing some of the most rugged landscape our planet has to offer.
Tea house trekking is a comfortable, specialized and unique method of hiking the Himalayas. For starters, there are a variety of different terms to describe lodging, places to eat, and places to eat that can also lodge you. In Nepal, it is quite easy to confuse oneself over the definitions, so before booking your trip and packing your gear, understand this: hotels are places to eat, lodges are places to sleep, and tea houses are both. For this reason, it’s important to know what it is you’re signing up for. When you’re signing up for an authentic tea house trek, the purpose of your trip is to not need camping gear or food. You hike during the day with the intent of staying at a tea house in the evening.
Good tea houses - which are bountiful with respect to Everest tea house treks - provide food, a warm bed, a cold (sometimes hot) shower, electricity charged by the hour, and some even have some decent wifi. Although considered to be the luxurious, bourgeois cousin of camping in the Himalayas, tea house trekking isn’t wrought with frills, and any frills (wifi, hot showers, electricity, etc.) cost extra. You get what you pay for with tea house treks, but what you pay for gives you comfortable access to some of the most breathtaking, yet unforgiving landscapes in the world.
There are technically four different main trekking routes for Everest. I say “technically” only because the trek via Jiri and the trek via Lukla (referred to as EBC – Everest Base Camp) are effectively the same, the only difference being when you start in Jiri, you get an extra 3-5 days and tea houses before your path collides with the EBC route. From there on their paths are the same. All three treks originate in Lukla, but vary on their approach to Base Camp after the Namche Bazar junction.
The least traveled of the three routes, primarily because of its difficulty, but also because it’s a relatively new route to foreign trekkers, is the Everest Three Passes route. It follows the below map, with the three passes marked with an “x”.
The route for the Three Passes trek.
This route was given its name for the three passes you cross along the way: Renjo (5,535m), Cho La (5,380m), and Kongma La (5,388m). The minimum amount of time needed for this trip is anywhere between 16-20 days, depending on rest, acclimatizing, and unforeseen weather circumstances. If you’ve got ample time to kill, it’s advised to extend this trek for a more leisurely and scenic experience, and if time is a concern to begin with, perhaps you may consider the more popular Everest Base Camp trek (14 days).
Three Passes trek starts in Lukla and proceeds to Namche Bazar. From here, trekkers can make their choice on the direction they intend to make the passes. Your guides will usually help in making this decision prior to this junction of the trek, based on a variable weather and route conditions. Neither way of trekking the circle has a benefit over the other, but it’s suggested that it’s easier completing the route counter-clockwise, due to the quick gain in elevation of Renjo La. Although this is not the EBC trek, the Three Passes trek does make a stop at Everest Base Camp, so don’t let the name fool you. Everest is the goal in both of these treks, it merely depends on your time, money, and appreciation of aesthetics. Three Passes is objectively the more scenic route.
Three Passes is a loop, and Gokyo Lakes trek dissects this circuit right down the middle from Namche Bazar. The Gokyo Lakes are a part of the highest freshwater lake system in the world. A sight to behold, this almost three week long trek is as scenic as it gets, although there are versions of the trek that don’t lead you to Everest base camp. There are treks, however, that set out on the Gokyo Lakes trail and then finish the second half of the Three Passes trail, leading yourself back down from base camp via Lombuche/Dingboche.
The route for the Gokyo Lakes trek. Photo found on Pinterest
Everest Base Camp trek is the most traveled and most direct route to EBC. Also originating in Lukla, it holds the same direction and trail as the former two trails until Namche Bazar, where it diverges east – this is your traditional route to the EBC from the southern side.
The route for the Everest Base Camp trek. Photo credit
After arriving in Lukla, you proceed along the highlighted route (see above). The places and amount of time spent acclimatizing vary based on the group, and if you’re an individual trekker you can decide those things for yourself. This trip in its entirety can take anywhere from 10-15 days, generally taking 8 days to get to Base Camp. There are frequent issues with altitude sickness approaching Lhotse. Although this is a very doable hike, it can be very dangerous if it’s not taken seriously. Take rest where needed, and acclimatize if you’re unsure.
As previously mentioned, the best part of teahouse trekking, aside from the cultural experience, the scenery, the adventure, and the beauty, is that you really don’t need to pack too much. People are cooking for you, using food they purchase themselves. Therefore everything you need is largely related to your own comfort. Sleeping bags, changes of clothes, and first aid kits are on the shortlist, and maybe some toiletries if you decide not to go all out during your trek. This pdf has a great list of gear that’s needed to get you through your trip, as well as some additional items you may find optional, but could be an enhancement to your trip.
This is a list of some Nepalese trekking guides and tours. In that same link, take a moment to browse over the FAQs and go over the permits required to trek in the national forest around Everest.
So much of the trekking culture is designed around the constant availability and skillful knowledge of the Nepalese people. Porters and Sherpas can be hired the day you arrive in Lukla, and can be ready as soon as you are ready. They do most of the work, and provide some essential companionship along the trip, should you need any. Moreover, they also provide you with a unique look into the heart of Nepalese culture. You may get glimpses of this experience in tea house trekking, but a local perspective is not something to take for granted.
Should you decided to solo trek, which is highly recommended for the “authentic” trekking experience, it’s important to know that you do not need to book tea houses in advance. It’s encouraged by some, especially if you are going in a large group, but the tea house trekking culture itself is built in the transient realm. People come and go, make friends deep in the Himalayas, and journey on in life, perhaps never meeting again.