The area below Lukla and Namche Bazar is fascinating, beautiful, and somewhat neglected. Lukla Airport was built in 1964, offering many travellers the option to catapult themselves directly into the main action, and allowing many hikers the opportunity to tick off the region’s most famous highlights in just a few weeks. Prior to this, treks in the Everest area would begin lower down in the Solukhumbu region, snaking their way towards Namche from Jiri or Salleri.
The region declined further in popularity as when it was affected by the Maoist insurgency in the early 2000s. Then, for many lodge owners the impact of the earthquake in 2015 was the final straw in abandoning their properties and rebuilding further up. However, there are many reasons to visit the area this underrated and less traversed region.
Nepal is a rich mish-mash of cultures. Trekking the Solukhumbu Cultural Trail makes this evident. For trekkers who relish the opportunity to learn about local cultures and history, this trail offers an abundance of unique experiences and insights. As you make your way east from Jiri towards Phaplu, the elevation rises and falls, and you dip in and out of Hindu and Buddhist areas, each with their own unique ethnic flavour.
The Solukhumbu Cultural Trail isn’t just one trail but a network of trails joining various settlements. You can tailor your itinerary to suit your speed and time. You can either fly into and out of Phaplu, or take a bus or jeep into or out of Jiri.
The trail from Jiri to Shivalaya is a mix of Hindu and Buddhist cultures. Shivalaya is on the route to Namche, and is busy with many lodges and tea houses. You will meet trekkers who chose (or had the weather choose for them) to begin their Everest trek in Jiri rather than Lukla. Shivalaya is also the start and end point of the Numbur Cheese Circuit trek, so there is plenty of delicious yak cheese available, which is a welcome snack once you get sick of sugary trekking bars. If you’re short on time, get a bus or jeep to Shivalaya, but check road conditions before travelling.
The area from Shivalaya to Bandar, descending towards Chaulakharka, is largely inhabited by Chettri and Bahun groups, farming cardamon on the hillside and drying it out in the autumn sun to sell to the Indian market. This trail is not on the main route to Namche so you will see fewer (if any) other trekkers. In fact, be careful as many locals will tell you you are going the ‘wrong way’ and try to direct you back up to the Namche highway. Once they realise you want to explore the Lower Kumbhu they will be very friendly, as they are eager to welcome tourists to their region and to discuss their culture and traditions.
From Bandar towards Junbesi and beyond to Nunthala, you enter predominantly Sherpa lands. The distinctive Tibetan-style dress and salty butter tea are prominent. Your other senses are stimulated by viewing the stupas that dot the higher landscapes. The fluttering of Buddhist prayer flags remind you that even though the landscape seems timeless, the wind is ever moving in these more mountainous areas. There are many small gompas along the route that are more than worth a visit. You can stop to refresh with some butter tea. The large monastery at Taksindu is distinctive due to its location in a type of campus with a school. Don’t miss the enthusiasm of the evening ceremony if you are staying in Taksindu overnight.
From Junbesi, Thubtencholing is an hour or so walk. Described by some as ‘mini Tibet’, this settlement and large monastery has a very different feel to the Sherpa settlements around Junbesi. From a distance, the small houses clustered together tightly on the steep hillside seem to be built on top of each other. Not a scrap of flat land can be found in Thubtencholing, apart from the area in front of the large monastery. Arriving in the late afternoon will give you chance to witness a mesmerising Tibetan-style ceremony, where the rhythmic chanting of nuns and monks mingles together. It is a completely different spectacle to the ceremony in Junbesi, as it’s larger and much more austere. There is nowhere to sleep in Thubtencholing (it’s sometimes possible for small groups to be accommodated within the monastery, but don’t rely on this). You can sleep back in Junbesi or Moping, a small settlement between Junbesi and Thubtencholing.
Between Salung and Phurtheng you trek along a ridge that allows excellent views of Mount Everest. There are several small teahouses at which you can rest your tired legs, drink a brew and admire the views in the warm sun. Again, friendly locals will make you feel welcome, and curious children may marvel at your knees: the relatively low elevation means it is often warm enough for shorts!
As you descend to the lower hill areas south-east of Nunthala, trekking parallel to the Dudh Koshi River towards Salleri, the cultural landscape changes again. Dominated by the Rai ethnic group, you’ll marvel at the efficient but frantic terracing of the fertile hillside, which signals a return to diversity of crops that the lower altitudes allow. The style of buildings also changes, with red clay ochre paint applied to the bottom half of otherwise whitewashed buildings. Food takes on a more Nepali style and masala tea is back with all its glorious spices.
Rising up again towards Salleri and Phaplu (and the likely end destination of your trek), you ascend again into Sherpa areas. The large Buddhist gompa at Salleri is worth visiting as a final cultural landmark to your trek.
Being British, I sometimes find asking questions about ethnic identity, customs and religion somewhat mortifying. To many of us, these are private affairs and not to be questioned. However, the locals I encountered on the trails were eager to show off their customs and I felt that questions that were motivated by a desire for greater understanding were welcomed and answered with eagerness. Due to ancient trading cooperation, there is awareness of the similarities and differences between the cultures of neighbouring areas.
I trekked during the Nepali festival of Dashain, which made the religious diversity especially interesting. Many people had travelled from elsewhere in Nepal to celebrate the festival with their families. I wasn’t expecting to see many Dashain traditions higher up in the Buddhist areas. However, monks from surrounding villages converged at Junbesi to perform an all-day ceremony for the 8th day, Maha Asthami. On this day, animal sacrifices are made to the Goddess Kali at Hindu temples and households around the country. These monks chanted and performed rituals to honour the souls of the sacrificed animals. In the evening, locals gathered in the monastery area to share butter tea, raksi and food.
Apart from the cultural diversity and amazing landscapes, another reason to visit this area is the availability of excellent local food and produce. Higher up in the Everest region, the sheer number of tourists means that all local supplies are exhausted very quickly and must be replaced by food portered up from Namche and beyond. However, the trails on the Solukhumbu Cultural Trail, being at a generally lower altitude and with fewer mouths to feed, are abundant in fresh, organic produce. Suddenly tired old dal bhat becomes exotic shiitake risotto made with mushrooms freshly picked by moonlight. Milk tea is served with genuine milk surplus from the family cow, rather than powder. There are many reasons to love trekking on the Solukhumbu Cultural Trail.
Article by Hannah Straw
Top image by Guillaume Baviere / Flickr