For as long as I can remember, I’ve been captivated by Nepal. Between the storied trekking routes, snowcapped mountains, and vibrant cultural diversity, the country has been at the top of my bucket list for the majority of my adult life. Still, for some reason I found myself hesitant to pull the trigger on actually booking the trip. I had a thousand excuses: no one I knew wanted to go, flights were expensive, planning was intimidating, and the type of traveling I wanted to do (trekking and homestays) didn’t seem realistic as a solo female traveler who isn’t terribly bold yet.
After meeting two women who had solo traveled for years in far more challenging environments, I decided to bite the bullet and trust that everything would work itself out. As it turned out, it all did – I found a killer deal on a flight thanks to price watching apps, two friends of mine ended up deciding to tag along several months after I made my reservation, and I found an incredible off-the-beaten-path trek with local guides that I deeply respected.
The Ruby Valley Trail
My visit to Nepal had two focuses: first, I wanted to hike in those incredible mountains and take in the views. Second, I wanted to immerse myself in the local culture and see how people in Nepal really live. While the vast majority of trekkers in Nepal hike either the Annapurna Circuit or the Everest Base Camp trek, I knew that those trails, although beautiful, challenging, and famous for a reason, didn’t offer exactly what I was looking for by way of a cultural experience. Rather than staying in lodges, hotels, and teahouses, I wanted the majority of my trek to revolve around homestays with locals. The trekking company I selected, Nepal Hidden Treks, recommended the little-known Ruby Valley Trail as the perfect mix of scenery and local interaction.
After an 8 hour jeep ride from Kathmandu, we reached the village where we would start the trek the next day. I’m not gonna lie – my friends and I had basically no idea what to expect from the experience. We knew to expect the basics when it came to accommodations, but we had no idea as to where we would actually be sleeping. Would we be staying on the floor in someone’s kitchen? In a spare bedroom? In a shed near the farm animals? As it turns out, it was pretty much a mix of all of the above. Perhaps because we were female travelers, we always had a private space to sleep at night. Sometimes that included a raised wooden platform as a bed, and sometimes we slept on the floor. Either way, a sleeping pad and sleeping bag are a must!
The hike from village to village followed the general course of the Tamang River as it wound through the Ruby Valley, offering us incredible views of the surrounding mountains (which the locals call “hills” because the “real” mountains are over 20,000 feet). We started at about 5,000 feet and hiked up to about 14,000 feet when we crossed Pangsang Pass. While we did get a few glimpses of the snowcapped Himalayas that make Nepal famous, most of the trail was done at lower elevations.
The mountains were still incredible! Since we were crossing the mountains on a track parallel with the ground, we went up and down the side of each mountain, resulting in tons of elevation gain and loss each day. This hike was not for the faint of heart, or legs! We also crossed tons of swinging bridges and navigated the trails along with local villagers and of course, lots of donkeys carrying cargo from place to place. I had the misfortune of dropping my camera lens cover directly into the path of an oncoming donkey caravan, and every single one of them stepped on it. Needless to say, I needed to purchase a new lens cover when I got home. Pro tip: Move over when the donkeys are coming your way. They’re not going to stop moving.
The Ruby Valley Trail is not actually a trekking trail at all – it is a route that locals walk from village to village and to their fields and schools each day. There’s no tourist infrastructure on the trail, so a guide is required unless you speak fluent Nepali and are able to locate the homestays on your own. Unlike the more popular trails, there are no lodges or teahouses, no signs that indicate which way to go, or anything else! You’re really out there among the local people, and since they never see tourists, they’re unbelievably excited to welcome you to their village.
One of our favorite days of the trip was the night we spent in our guide’s home village. He had not been home to visit his family in over two years because of the length of time it takes to travel there, so the reunion was joyous. In addition to the beauty of that reunion, we also had the best home-cooked meal of the entire trip (dal bhat, of course – rice and lentil soup with curried vegetables) and got to know “Aama” and “Baba,” our guide’s mother and father. We also passed by the school that our guide walked two hours each way every day to get to and the fields that he grew up farming. Hearing his stories and meeting his family really put the whole experience in a new context for us, and we felt like family by the time we left his parents’ home. It was truly one of the (many) highlights of the trip.
Tamang Heritage Trail
After my friends left to head back home, I continued on to the Tamang Heritage Trail, which is in the Langtang region of Nepal. This trek is still considered “off the beaten path,” but it does have a slightly more developed tourist infrastructure. The majority of the trail offers sweeping views of the Langtang portion of the Himalayas, including the breathtaking Langtang Lirung – a mountain that stands more than 23,000 feet tall! My first time seeing that mountain was when I realized why the locals call the other mountains “hills!”
This trail originally brought tourists and locals alike to the local hot springs, and numerous lodges were constructed in the surrounding villages to accommodate guests. The area is predominantly populated by ethnic Tamang people, who originally hail from Tibet. The rich cultural history in this area contributed to the designation of this trek as the “Tamang Heritage Trail,” and today, the culture is the primary attraction since the hot springs were destroyed by the 2015 earthquake. The lodges and teahouses in the area offer private rooms and beds with mattresses, as well as a mix of both continental and Nepali cuisine. Nothing surprised me more than seeing cheeseburgers on the menu and a western toilet after more than a week of non-stop dal bhat and squat toilets! Thanks to these extra amenities, I also spotted other tourists for the first time on the trek – a total of five during the four days I spent on the trail. After seeing no other tourists on the Ruby Valley Trail, I felt surrounded!
While this portion of the trek did feature some tough and steep sections, for the most part, the trail was much easier going than the Ruby Valley Trail. The hiking portions each day were also much shorter – usually no more than 4 or 5 hours. Of course, that still didn’t stop me from slipping and falling directly onto a pile of (still warm) cow manure and then slipping and falling again on the last day of my trek and breaking my hand. While I’d like to say it’s a cooler story than that, it’s really not – I just slipped, fell, and put my hand down wrong. Shout out to my multi-towel from REI and my guide’s spare ace bandage for acting as my makeshift cast until I got back home!
The Tamang Heritage Trail is a great trekking option for people who are looking to get a bit off the beaten path without totally sacrificing all of the comforts of home. While your opportunities to interact with the local people will be more limited than if you did homestays, there is still plenty to see and do. Also, the Tamang Heritage Trail is easy to follow, so you won’t need a guide, and all of the lodge owners speak at least basic English. This short trek is a great option if you don’t have a lot of time but still want to experience some of the mountains and culture that make Nepal famous!
Of course, no visit to Nepal would be complete without spending some time in Kathmandu! While I devoted most of my trip to trekking, I did have about a day and a half to explore the capital. Kathmandu is a bustling, busy, and dusty place, and the traffic situation is…well, it lives in my nightmares. Even after the 2015 earthquake, there are still some incredible sights to see, although many of the famed temples have been destroyed.
One of the places that I knew I had to visit was Swayambhunath, better known as the Monkey Temple. Although I expected it to be kind of hokey and touristy, I still couldn’t resist the idea of tons of monkeys running around amidst flapping prayer flags and sweeping views of the Kathmandu Valley. While there are plenty of tourists at the Monkey Temple, I was pleasantly surprised by just how truly breathtaking and beautiful it was. The monkeys are pretty surreal to see running everywhere, and the views of the valley are really stunning. Just 50 years ago, almost the entire valley was agricultural fields, but today, there are houses and buildings as far as the eye can see. Nepal did not have its first paved road until the 1970s, so the pace of development is pretty impressive!
The aspect of Kathmandu that impressed me the most is the way the Hindu and Buddhist faiths intertwine. As I walked around the city with a local guide, he constantly reiterated that Nepali people celebrate everything, regardless of which religion they actually subscribe to. Hindu people visit Buddhist temples and vice versa, and everyone celebrates certain holidays, like Diwali. While some of the city’s most famous temples and much of the former royal palace was destroyed in the earthquake, I still got to visit many temples in and around Durbar Square. The colors and detail are definitely sights to behold! Bonus points if you notice the many, many carvings acting out the Kama Sutra!
My favorite part of my time in Kathmandu was actually wandering from shop to shop through the winding streets and alleys, looking for souvenirs for my family and friends before heading back home. I found a pair of pants that I wanted to purchase for my mom, but they were too long, which I sadly noted to the shop owner. “Oh, I can fix that!” he exclaimed. “I have my sewing machine right here!” While I probably could have found the same pair of pants a few doors down in a size that would have fit right away, I sat down with him and chatted for nearly an hour as he hemmed them. I learned all about his family, which is spread out across the world, and saw pictures of his children. The time flew by and as he finished the pants, he invited me to dinner the following night at his house with his wife and kids. Had I not been flying out that night, I would have taken him up on it. While some people find traveling solo as a female to be intimidating, I find that people go out of their way to connect and help me. Those connections are one of my favorite parts of traveling, the reason I feel confident heading out on my own over and over again.
Overall, I can’t say enough good things about Nepal. While it might not be the easiest or most comfortable place to travel, the beauty of the landscape and the kindness of the people makes every second worth it. If you’re interested in getting off the beaten path in Nepal,read more about my adventures and recommendations for packing or head over to Nepal Hidden Treks and speak to the people that helped me plan my trip and guided me along the way!