Here's to the Little Ones......
Earlier in the year I wrote a blog article offering advice about tea houses for trekkers in Nepal (you can find it here). In it I discussed how things had changed since my early Himalaya trekking days. On my first visits several decades ago a tea house was literally someone’s house where visitors could find a space to bed down. You usually shared with the family, often ate with the family and once or twice I even slept in the same room as the family. It felt personal, authentic and special.
We’d had a long day. Our journey through the Langtang region of Nepal was coming to an end and we were making one last leg over to the holy lakes at Gosiakunda before the journey back to Kathmandu. We’d made a long descent from Langtang village and aimed to finish our day in the ridge top village of Thulo Syabru. As we entered the village there was a long climb up with the path side lined with lodges we could choose from. We actually commented that, given how quiet the trails had been, the number of accommodations seemed like massive oversupply. Anyway, as we entered the village my eye was drawn to a small single storey place called the Buddha Guesthouse. It had solid stone walls and was colourfully yet tastefully painted. It also had a lovely terrace offering stunning views of the valley below and across to the Ganesh Himal mountain range.
Nowadays, these places are much harder to find in popular trekking areas. This is inevitable. The rapid rise in the number of trekkers means that demand for places outstrips supply. In popular areas like the Everest or Annapurna regions, the tea houses (I still like to call them tea houses although many will now better describe themselves as guest houses) are now like hotels with dozens of rooms, often with some en-suite bathrooms and large lounge/dining rooms that will sit a hundred people. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it is a rapid development to changing circumstance.
I suggested we check the Buddha out, and we wandered through the gate to chat to the Nepalese couple sat on the terrace. This turned out to be owners Temba and Mingmar, and they beamed at the prospect we might stay with them. The tea house had 3 guest rooms with none en-suite and a single shared bathroom and toilet. With 3 twin rooms Temba and Mingmar could house a maximum of 6 guests, and we were the first to have enquired about staying in the last 6 days. Temba said he’d show us around.
For many trekkers these large guest houses will be their only experience of a trekking trip. Some of them are chains and the trekking companies might favour using them for business reasons. Sometimes they are the only option available. Often, these places are chosen by their guides as they see that being what their clients want. Often they are right. Infact, despite being in remote mountain areas trekkers can now enjoy a high level of comfort and lodge owners are increasingly trying to cater for this - there is an increasing growth of luxury lodges with heated rooms, en-suite hot showers and even heated duvets. It is a mountain home away from home.
Temba showed us a room that, although very basic, was spotlessly clean. There were 2 simple bunks covered in crisp white sheets and 2 pillows. The walls were all constructed from unpainted plywood and the window at the end offered a priceless view over the mountains and there was a small light. That was it. Temba then showed us the single toilet and shower cubicle and, outside these, a small sink was fastened to the wall with a mirror over. Strikingly, and in stark contrast to many bathrooms and toilets in some of the larger guest houses, the Buddha facilities were spotlessly clean. It was a great place and we were very happy to spend a night with this gentle family.
The income opportunities from trekkers is vast. Choose one of the busy honeypot villages and there will be thousands of affluent visitors trekking through each season. If they are all buying meals, having showers (which tea houses usually charge for), charging their phones (charge payable again), buying WiFi access and purchasing drinks and snacks. There is plenty of money in trek tourism - if you have a lodge in the right place.
Temba and Mingmar invited us to join them for tea on the terrace and, looking back, this single experience will stand out as the highlight of our trip. The situation was magical and relaxing in that special place after a tough day on the trails felt like heaven. Mingmar spoke very little English, but Temba had taught himself from a book during his many years working as a porter. He spoke really well. He explained that the guesthouse had been built by his grandfather and originally his family had been farmers. Then, he had lived here as a child before mixing work as a porter with farming and eventually committing to running a guesthouse. Temba had also raised 4 children here and now they were all studying in Kathmandu. The cost of schooling and their accommodation has to be met by the family.
The larger tea houses can be very sociable places where everyone congregates in the lounge/dining room in the evening and the room is heated by an oil drum wood/Yak dung burning heater positioned in the centre of the room. It can be a great place to share info on the trail, play cards, read or, inevitably nowadays, update social media and catch up on internet stuff. Some feel like being in a large hotel and a team of staff will be working behind the scenes to feed everyone.
After tea at the Buddha we ordered lunch. Dahl Baht is the traditional Nepalese rice and lentil dish which is typically served with a poppadom and a vegetable curry. It is great fuel for trekking and is my staple food in Nepal. With these ordered, Mingma disappeared to the kitchen to cook while we continued chatting to Temba. Periodically she’d come out and cut a bunch of vegetables from their garden and as we chatted we could hear the sound of chopping and frying coming from the small kitchen - there was no doubt this Dahl Baht would be as fresh as it comes.
The downsides to all these people mixing together can be that illnesses spread easily and also that large numbers bring a lot of noise. Illnesses can be caused by sanitation systems that struggle to cope and things like colds and coughs can spread easily around a packed room. Then, when everyone heads off to rooms with plywood walls there can certainly be a lot of noise as doors slam and your next door neighbour is coughing. It is all just part of tea house life and I’m not aiming to be negative - it is just good to know what to expect.
After lunch we made use of the hot showers, sorted our rooms and headed up the trail to see what the rest of the village was like. We were staggered by the amount of large tea houses for this small village and the number of new ones under construction. We’d only passed a couple of trekkers on the section from the valley and so where was all the business coming from. Temba told us that the business, to put it simply, wasn’t coming. There was a time when trekkers started in Dunche and so naturally their route brought them via this village, but now a road has been carved out to the village of Syabrubesi and everyone starts from there. His village is in the wrong place. Temba also showed us, clearly visible across the hillside, a new road that is now being built through to the small settlement of Rimche. Once that is open people will be able to start trekking there and all the villages enroute to there will be missed. Of course, some people will want to trek from the earliest starting point, but will be put off by the proximity of the road. The locals have no say and yet a road can change everything for them.
Of course, as nice as a small tea house can be, the reality is also that in some places trekkers have no choice. If you arrive in a village on the Everest trail like Dingboche you will be hard pushed to find a place smaller than a hotel, but it is often still possible if you stop outside the main centres. Another trick might be talking to your guide or quizzing other trekkers along the way. Last year, as an example, I was leading a large group and we were due to stay in Pangboche. I chatted to my guide and heard of a family tea house where the husband, who was a climbing Sherpa, had been killed in the catastrophic 2006 avalanche on Ama Dablam and the family had struggled financially ever since. I knew this should be our stopping place and, although we packed the little place out, we had a great night and were able to inject some money into the families funds. I wouldn’t have known about this place without local knowledge.
Back at the Buddha, we enjoyed a lovely afternoon on the terrace and Temba thought we might be good for business as we got chatting to another group of trekkers who headed past and persuaded them to stay the night too. In the evening we sat in the small lounge around a cosy fire and it was a night that will always live on in my memory - whereas a lot of tea house nights have certainly merged together.
Temba is clearly very worried about the future of his community and worried about his family. How can he compete with 3 bedrooms and a single shared bathroom when every group wants attached rooms? I haven’t got a solution, except to ask trekkers to search out the little lodges once in a while. You may lose out in facilities, but will be more than compensated in experiences. At breakfast I asked Temba if he’d slept well? “When my house is full, I always sleep well”, he said.
Posted by Paul