• Adventure
  • 05 August, 2022

More to Solukhumbu than Mount Everest

More to Solukhumbu than Mount Everest

Most people identify the district of Solukhumbu with Mount Everest. This is the district where the Everest Region or Khumbu area lies. The northern part of the district also borders China. Everest sits along that border, with its north face accessed from the Chinese side.  

Solu on the other hand, is the area south of Lukla and is largely ignored by tourists. This is where the original route up into the Everest area can still be trekked from Jiri. The former path was used by Sir Edmund Hilary and expeditions to Everest before the airport at Lukla was built in 1964 under Hillary’s supervision. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful areas of Nepal.

I first visited Salleri, the district headquarters of Solukhumbu in 2005 when I arrived to see a school in Gunsa, a village a few hours walk from there. One of the schools supported by Doug Scott’s British charity, Community Action Nepal, where I accompanied some volunteers who were going to spend a few months helping the school and a nearby heath post. A group of us flew to Phaplu Airport in one of Yeti Airlines’ little 18 seater Twin Otters. At that time there was still no road going there and Salleri could only be reached on foot or by air.

View from Salleri towards Dudhkundha and Numbur [Photo: Marianne

After spending a couple of days at the school, it was time to return to Kathmandu and so I set off on foot to Jiri along a route that several teachers at the school assured me took them just three days. Not taking into account how much slower I would be walking, I did make it to Jiri in three days. 

On the first day I walked 12 hours to Lamjura Pass (3,530m); 10 hours the following day to Bhandar (2,200m); and finally an ‘easy’ 8 hour day to Jiri where I caught a bus the following morning to Kathmandu. From then on, I resolved never to believe a Nepali estimate of hiking times ever again. I have always found that adding 50% to any estimate of walking times works very well for me. It took me a week for my legs to recover! 

A few months later in March 2006, I returned to Salleri to try out the newly proposed Pikey Peak trekking route that was being developed by the Tourism for Rural Poverty Alleviation Programme (TRPAP), a project supported by UNDP, DFID, SNV and GTZ. This 5 year project was set up to promote tourism in several poorer areas adjacent to famous tourist areas in Nepal. In the lower Solukhumbu area, they proposed a six or seven day trek to Pikey Peak and some shorter treks to Dudhkhunda and around parts of the original Jiri-Lukla trail (Nunthala-Taksindu). As this was during the Maoist Insurgency, few tourists were visiting Nepal. However, whilst this meant problems for locals, apart from demands for ‘donations,’ foreign tourists were usually left unhindered. Almost finished in their work, TRPAP were more than happy for me to test out their routes and give them feedback. 

With a local porter, I followed the circuit from Salleri they were proposing. There was still some snow and the rhododendrons were blooming. TRPAP had done a good job training locals at the little guest houses along the way. However, at the village where I had visited the school the year before, there was no accommodation. Thankfully, the nurses at the healthpost remembered me and were happy to put me up for the night. Later I pointed out to TRPAP how it did not make sense to have to carry a tent for just one night, so the route no longer passes Gunsa. Now there are a few more lodges and several possible routes coming from different directions, depending on how much time you have available. Pattale, on the road now going to Salleri is a good starting point if you fancy a shorter trek. 

Locally Pikey Peak (4,065m) is referred to as a ‘danda’ or hill. It’s all relative as this ‘hill’ is not much less high than Mont Blanc (4,807m). Coming from Pattale, it is a fairly gradual climb to the lodges at the Pikey Peak ‘Base Camp’, where a short path takes you to the top. Coming down on the other side however, it is steeper. 

From the top of Pikey Peak, you can see eight of Nepal’s eight-thousanders from one place. It was a favourite of Sir Edmund Hillary after he climbed it during the walk-in to Everest on his 1953 expedition. On a clear day you can see from Dhaulagiri in the west to Kanchenjunga in the east with everything in-between: Annapurna, Manaslu, Mount Everest, Cho Oyu, Makalu, Lhotse and other eight-thousanders playing hide and seek behind lesser but nearer peaks like the elegant summit of Mount Numbur, right in front standing tall above Mount Karyolung. It is probably one of my favourite treks in Nepal. More recently I was delighted to show it off to a Nepali friend who has a trekking agency in Kathmandu and was not familiar with the route.

Once back in Salleri after going up Pikey Peak, I immediately headed to Junbesi to check out TRPAP’s Dudhkunda trek. About two hours from Junbesi is the impressive Thupten Choling Monastery, said to be the largest in Nepal with more than 500 monks and nuns (the number fluctuates). It was founded by HH Trulshik Rinpoche (d.2011), a teacher of the Dalai Lama and 33rd reincarnation of Terton Donak Lingpa, a famous spiritual master. Trulshik Rinpoche settled in the Khumbu after fleeing Tibet in 1959, staying at various monasteries for a time, in the hope of returning to Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet. Finally, in 1968, he built Thupten Choling near Junbesi on land that was donated. He continued to believe that he would soon return to Tibet, so the monastery was not built to last. By the 1990s it was deteriorating and reconstruction work began in 2001. When I passed in 2006, work was still in progress. Damaged by the 2015 earthquake, it has since been repaired.

The finishing touches to the reconstructed Thupten Choling Monastery. [Photo: Marianne

I did not stay at Thupten Choling as it was just an hour or so further to Phungmoche, where there is a monastery that’s perched on a huge rock. I spent the night here, joining the monks for their meals and prayers in the evening.

Phungmoche monastery [Photo: Marianne

The following morning I set off along a deserted trail, passing by shepherds and their yak herds to where there is a small hermit cave. If I’d had a tent, I could have continued to Dudhkunda (4,592m), a further few days’ trek further. Here the lake is revered and pilgrims believe a dip in its milky (dudh means milk in Nepali) waters absolves you of your sins and makes your wishes come true.  

Once back in Salleri, I tested out the third trek suggested by TRPAP. I followed the path to Chaylsa, where with the support of the US and Switzerland, one of the first Tibetan Refugee Settlements was built in the early 1960s. Continuing to Kaku, Basa, back through Nunthala and Taksindu before returning to Salleri, this was a beautiful four day trek. I even made it back to Salleri in time to see the Saturday weekly bazaar. 

Salleri Saturday bazaar [Photo: Marianne

On my most recent visit in May 2022, I came to visit some families who are working with Community Homestay Network to offer guests the opportunity to sample life in Salleri and enjoy some of the local attractions of the area. Although it is Solukhumbu’s district headquarters, it is still a small town. It is strung out along a main street with little shops and low-rise buildings and feels more like a village. It takes just half an hour to walk down from the top of the main street to the other end of the town. It  just takes a few minutes to walk either up or down into the forest or fields on either side. The main street is narrow and quite steep, discouraging all but the very occasional vehicle. Vehicles arriving from Kathmandu stop briefly at Neue Bazaar’s ‘Zero Point’ by the marketplace before driving up along the bypass to Phaplu and continuing as far as Junbesi. The road still has not made it across the high Lamjura Pass to meet the road coming from Jiri on the other side. 

At 2,338m I’d forgotten how cold it can get even in May. While in Kathmandu it was 28°, here it was no more than 18°.  In the winter it often snows here and you can see snow capped mountains. 

Salleri’s Saturday weekly market is one of the most important in the area and draws villagers from all around. Now with the road, they are able to come in a matter of an hour or so rather than a day or so. Nele Bazaar, just a couple of hours walk away, also has a delightful weekly market, held on Tuesdays. 

As well as Salleri’s monastery, there are several more on the way to Chaylsa’s Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery. I was happy to see that Jhaylsa Monastery, the nearest one, not more than an hour away, had been repaired by Indian engineers after the 2015 earthquake. New accommodation had to be built as the original building behind the gompa was damaged beyond repair.  Talking to some of the young Sherpa monks here, I came to find out that they had come from as far away as Dharan and Itahari.  Next to Jyasha Gompa there is a new monastery that had been built very recently.

Jhyalsa Monastery, one of several in the area. [Photo: Marianne

One of my most favourite villages to visit, Chaylsa is a beautiful place. The monastery here was initially founded for the refugees who came from Tibet after 1959. In the late 1990s, the Tibetan government in exile asked Kopan Monastery to take over its care and management. A senior monk from Kopan who is also the abbot of the monastery takes care of young monks between the age of 10 and 23. Several of them have gone on to Sera Monastery in South India to continue their studies. Though damaged, the monastery has been lovingly restored and I was relieved to see the old frescoes by the entrance had survived intact. Chaylsa’s original carpet factory that had been turned into a community lodge however had been damaged. Although now it no longer offers accommodation there is still a little restaurant where you can drink salt tea and eat Tibetan soup among other snacks.

Chaylsa’s Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery. [Photo: Marianne

Continuing up through the village, there is a viewpoint at the top of a hill that offers views of Everest (8,849 m), Dudhkunda (4,592m), Numbur (6,958m) and Pikey Peak (4,065m). The following day, I visited the new International Mountain Research/ Training Centre in Garma. This is a very nice hike from Salleri along a rough road that’s little more than a track. This then joins the road from Salleri to Deusa, a village about 6 hours walk from Salleri. (Eventually this road will reach Lukla.) In its extensive grounds, the Centre has recently built Nepal’s tallest artificial climbing wall (20m) that is carved on the back of a giant yeti statue.  

On the other side of Salleri just beyond the end of Phaplu Airport’s runway is Chiwang Monastery, one of the oldest in the district. Built in 1935 by the legendary Sange Lama of Phaplu, Chiwang Gompa is one of three in Solukhumbu that plays host to the Mani Rimdu festival of Nepal celebrated every year during the 10th month of the Sherpa calendar (around the 3rd week of November). 

Masked dancers perform for hours in an elaborate ritualistic telling of the story of Buddhism’s triumph over Bon, Tibet’s ancient animist religion. The drama is lit by the full moon by which each Mani Rimdu is timed. Performing Lamas (monks) wear beautifully crafted papier maché masks and intricately woven brocade costumes. On the first day of the festival the monks act out elaborate prayer rituals before embarking on the story itself on the second day. On the final day, Sherpas who have gathered for the ceremonies join with the local villagers to dance the night away. 

Over the years, I have kept returning time after time to Salleri and the surrounding area. I have walked many times from Jiri (taking about four and a half days).  I have seen the road come from Kathmandu which at first was a very rough track, where invariably jeeps would get stuck in the mud. Now a black-top, even during the monsoon, Salleri is accessible. For several years there was no road bridge over the Sunkosi River. Everyone had to take all their luggage and cross on a footbridge, catching the jeeps waiting on the other side to complete their journey. Finally in 2014, after more than a decade of construction, the Sunkosi Bridge at Ghurmi was completed, reducing the journey time by at least a couple of hours. Now, it takes seven to eight hours to reach Salleri from Kathmandu by jeep. 

Since the end of the Maoist Insurgency when all road-building and construction projects came to a standstill, roads have been built everywhere, connecting villages all over the country. Though hated by the tourism industry wanting to safeguard trekking, the roads have been a boon for villagers who now can easily transport goods to the market, and can travel more easily to hospitals or Kathmandu. It is a huge improvement from four-and-a-half days on foot. 

Getting there:

Jeep: Jeeps run daily from Chabhil Chowk leaving early in the morning. To book tickets, I usually ask around in Thamel at one of many trekking shops run by locals from Salleri and the surrounding area. It should take about 8 hours to reach Salleri. Some jeeps go to Nele Bazaar or to Deusa or otherwise you can change at Salleri. 

Bus: Buses also go to Salleri but take much longer and can be much less comfortable.

Hike: Alternatively, if you want to hike in, buses go to Jiri and beyond. It is probably best to take the bus to Bandar to start walking from there, via the Lamjura Pass and Junbesi. 

Fly:  The flight duration is just 30 minutes operated by Tara Air and Summit Air. Flights are scheduled in the morning as by midday the airport is usually too windy for the planes to land.

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