Trekker's Journal

Trekker’s Journal: On the fast track to Rara Lake

April 28, 2017

Rara Lake by Madeleine DollingKe Garne. If you attempt to learn only one phrase during your trip to Nepal, this ought to be the one. Accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders, the sentiment of “what to do?” is one necessary to adopt in this country to keep your cool in the face of adversity.We learned this at the onset of our trekking journey as we were basting at the hot airport in Nepalgunj, surviving on Ghorka beer and airport canteen samosas for hours, only to find out our delayed flight to Jumla had been cancelled due to bad weather.

We were meant to be headed for Rara Lake, one of the best destinations for trekking in western Nepal. The region is an adventurer’s dream in that it has remained a relatively unexplored part of the country by foreign travelers. Those who do make it out there are rewarded with uncrowded trails, authentic culture and a wealth of natural beauty. The highlight of the trek, Rara Lake, is the biggest lake in the country and it lies tucked away in the remote hills of the Mugu district. Similar to Dolpa in the east and Humla in the west, the Mugu region is located in the rainshadow, ironically making the Rara Lake Circuit a perfect trek to do in the monsoon season. The crux seemed to be in getting there.

Having timed our slight travel hiccup with a nationwide strike that involved a ban on all motorized transportation we ke garned ourselves and our backpacks onto a bicycle rickshaw and were pedaled 3km down the main road to the Traveler’s Village. With air conditioned rooms and promises of the best lemon meringue pie in the country it would turn out to be the most luxurious part of our trip.

The weather was luckily very much improved by the next morning and we were able to take off to Jumla at first light.

Being short on time, exacerbated by our delay at the start, our aim was to march in, admire the lake and pivot back to Jumla, all in 5 days*. The recommended time to complete the circuit is 10 days, so we knew we had our work cut out for us. Here is how we did it:

Day 1
Jumla to Jaljala Chaur 19km (6h)
Max altitude: 3,585m

The trailhead for the Rare Lake Circuit trek starts from the airstrip in Jumla and follows Jugad river out of town via a dusty track. After about 2 hours of walking there is a fork in the road, and a decision to make; whether to take the clockwise route around the Rara Lake Circuit or the counter-clockwise loop. The clockwise route involves more distance to reach the lake, which is why we decided it prudent to do first.

Most of the day is dedicated to a gradual and rather grueling 5-hour climb. Our goal was a marked campsite on the map located on the other side of Jaljala La pass (3,585m). As we found out upon arrival, a campsite in these parts basically means a flat surface and a running stream. Luckily we are simple campers. Simple to the extreme perhaps. Our provisions amounted to ramen noodles, whiskey and a whole lot of optimism.

Rara Lake Circuit

Beautiful views on Rara Lake Circuit. Photo Madeleine Dolling.

Day 2
Jaljala Chaur to Ghorosinga 34km (10h)
Max altitude: 3,190m

Rising with the sun, and to the angry growls coming from our stomachs, we hit the trail again. About 30 minutes down the trail we stopped at a farmhouse for some biscuits and a generous offer of hot water to fill our cafetière (packing essential for those who cannot get through a day without a coffee fix). In hindsight, this would have been a more ideal place to set up camp as there was a water tap and a hearth sure to have kept us warmer than the less than scout-worthy fire we had built the night before. Ke Garne, and on we went.

Rara Lake Circuit

Breakfast of champions = biscuits and fresh French Press. Photo Alfie Pearce-Higgins. 

Most of the morning is a beautiful descent under a canopy of thick pine forests, along clear rushing streams and through scattered settlements. Our mid-day goal was the town of Sinja, the biggest settlement we had yet to come across. The town was recently connected to Jumla by a new jeep track which was good news for us as we were in dire need of some new provisions. We entered Sinja Valley by way of a suspension bridge over the icy cold Tila river. After a refreshing wash in the river (and a dramatic moment where we nearly lost one of our trekking companions to the rushing forces of the river) we were ready for civilization.

Sinja Valley was the capital of the Khash Malla Kingdom and quite a stronghold back in the middle ages. Sinja is also recognized as the place of origin of the Nepali language. Our immediate point of interest though, was one of the guest houses lining the jeep track and the promise of a big steaming plate of dal bhat.

Feeling slightly comatose from the first heavy meal since leaving Jumla we reluctantly pushed off again to start the first ascent of the day. The trail follows the jeep track for about two hours in a comfortable incline by way of the small settlements Gani and Laha. Here the jeep track veers off to join the eastern part of the Rara Lake Circuit trail. We however, headed west toward Ghorosingha.

The last kilometer or so was a quad burning climb to gain 800m in elevation. Once at the top our efforts were rewarded with views of a beautiful plateau with a small brook running through it and wide grassy banks on each side. Perfect for setting up camp. The womenfolk in the group headed up to a cluster of farmhouses on the hill in search of a water tap and a few fresh eggs to jazz up our now standard fare of noodle soup. Returning back to camp with out bounty we were pleased to see that local herders, returning from grazing their livestock in the valley, had taken pity on the boys and lent a hand in setting up our camp. With the ease bestowed from lifelong experience in the outdoors, the herders helped pitch our tents at a safe distance from the flowing brook and gathered some firewood for what was to become an impressive bonfire. After sharing a few biscuits and cigarettes with our gracious benefactors they were on their way, and we were left with a roaring fire and a magnificent starry sky.

Day 3
Ghorosinga to Rara 19km (7h)
Max altitude: Ghurchi Mara: 3710m

Waking up to the sound of cows being turned out to graze we hurriedly broke camp and headed out for the final push to Rara Lake. An hour of walking got us to the border of the Rara National Park and a military checkpoint where we were asked to show our TIMS permit and pay the park entry fee of $20. Here the soldiers very kindly gave us some hot water for our morning coffee, a much needed boost to power us up the last climb over Ghurchi Mara (3,710m).

Rara Lake Circuit

Final push before Rara Lake. Photo Madeleine Dolling.

Once over the pass, a beautiful flat trail stretched out along a wide ridge. From here we caught our first glimpse of Rara Lake far below.

They say that there are more species of birds around Rara Lake than tourists visit in any given year. A quick look at the records at the check point down by the lake confirmed this to be true. There are approximately 230 species of bird in the Rara Lake area. My three travel companions and I were the 40th visitors so far that year.

Rara Lake Circuit

Along a ridge before the final descent to Rara Lake. Photo Madeleine Dolling.

After three very long (and amazing) days of trekking we had finally made it to our destination. And we were not disappointed. Rara Lake with its crystal clear blue waters, surrounded by thick alpine forests made for a stunning picture. Carved out along the banks of the lake was a wonderfully flat path that our tired legs were happy to plod along while taking in the scenery. We made our way through a couple of small settlements outside of the lake premises and easily found the only lodge around the lake, Danphe Guest House. The lodge offered simple rooms with attached bathrooms, a decent menu and cold beers. After a quick squat wash with a bucket of hot water and a renewed acquaintance with soap we felt like a million rupees.

Rara Lake Circuit

Danphe Guest House. Photo Madeleine Dolling.

Day 4
Rara Lake to Bulbule 31km (11h)
Max altitude: Ghurchi Lagna 3,450m

Rara Lake Circuit

Trekking along the shores of Rara Lake. Photo Madeleine Dolling.

A tight trekking schedule notwithstanding we couldn’t resist adding an additional 2 hours to our day by taking the long way around Rara Lake before heading back to Jumla. The walk is about 11km from the guest house to the other side of the lake where the circuit trail picks up again. The lake’s total circumference is 13km and the trail around it is very well maintained by the soldiers managing the local military outpost. After circumnavigating the lake we aimed to get on the main trekking route in Jhyari and join up the Rara Lake Circuit by way of Dhuir and Ghurchi Lagna pass (3,450m).

The trek was a mix of jeep track and shortcuts across switchbacks on some of the steepest trails we had ever encountered. The only thing worse than huffing and puffing up a muddy vertical, clutching at vegetation to keep ones footing, was having a 5-year-old child in plastic sandals trotting up in front of you, signaling you to get on with it.

Our competition on the trails. Photo Madeleine Dolling.

Our competition on the trails. Photo Alfie Pearce-Higgins.

We hobbled in to Bulbule before sunset and were happy to find the Blue Rara Hotel, the first lodge we had seen since leaving Rara. It was a very basic lodge with all the necessary amenities required after a hard day on the trail: a bucket of hot water, dal bhat fresh off the stove, a cold beer and a bed.

Day 5
Bulbule to Jumla 35km (9h)
Max altitude: Khali Lagna pass 3,550

Rara Lake M Dolling

The final descent to Jumla. Photo Alfie Pearce-Higgins.

After a surprise 6am wake-up call and bed-tea from the friendly guest house proprietor, we were on our way for our last push to Jumla.
The trail is a series of steep descents through spruce and rhododendron forests and tough climbs over passes including Danphe Lagna (3500m) and Khali Lagna (3,550).

The beautiful scenery and the last packets of ramen noodles help to push us through the final descent to Jumla and we hobbled in to the settlement well before sunset.

There is not an abundance of hotels in Jumla, and it being a festival day on our arrival, we were lucky to score rooms at the Snow Mountain hotel. After a real shower and a change into some clean new clothes we had scored in a street stall outside our hotel, we settled down for some celebratory beers and congratulatory pats on the backs. Taking the fast track to Rara Lake was an amazing experience, although not without its share of blisters and sore muscles.


Getting there:
Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air both operate two daily flights to Nepalgunj. Time in flight is 55 mins and if you catch the early morning departure you will make the daily flight to Jumla in one day. As usual when flying in Nepal, factor in extra travel day in your itinerary for unpredictable weather delays.

Trekking essentials:

  • Compass
  • Map and preferably a confident map-reader in the group. (Luckily we had one with near militant tendencies who analyzed every rock and bend in the river to make sure we were on the right track. He annoyed us at first, but at the end, we were eternally grateful for his superior sense of direction).
  • Camping equipment – the region is still relatively underdeveloped in terms of signage, shops or lodges. Bringing camping equipment and having some food provisions is essential.
  • Water purifying tablets or filtration bottle – unlike popular trekking routes in the Annapurnas there are not many opportunities to buy filtered water. We got most of our water from streams, rivers or occasional water taps along the way so purifying tablets were essential.
  • If you enjoy a fresh cup of joe in the morning, it’s best to bring your own.

*Altitude Sickness can occur when moving from low to high altitudes, especially when this is done rapidly. Its important to go slowly and monitor your body’s reaction to the change in altitude.

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