Circling the Kathmandu Valley on the descent to the capital, you may well catch a sight of Everest. Cast your eyes yet further to the east, and on a clear day you will see the hazy outline of a hulking white massif, an entire range unto itself. That is Kanchenjunga.
In Tibetan, ‘Kanchenjunga’ means ‘the five treasure houses of snow’, which gives you some idea of what to expect should you visit this area. At 8586 m, massive Kanchenjunga is the world’s third highest mountain, and marks the eastern border of Nepal with the Indian state of Sikkim. The conservation area that surrounds it extends into protected areas in Sikkim and Tibet, and comprises a beautiful, unspoilt wilderness. This is Snow Leopard territory, but the reclusive predator shares the unbounded forests with the Himalayan Black Bear and the Assamese Macaque, among others. Cascading waterfalls, lush vegetation and thousands of species of plants await those who take the long trail to Kanchenjunga Base Camp, the main route which has been described as ‘untrekked’.
Unabashedly wild, Kanchenjunga is for the true adventurer within you. The east of Nepal is more developed than the west, but the remoteness of this terrain, its rugged trails, scattered human habitation, and monsoonal downpours make for a perfectly challenging beginning to the Great Himalaya Trail. Wending slowly up through Ghunsa for views of Kanchenjunga’s massive north face, you will reach base camp at Pangpema, then push on to Jhinsing La, the starting point of the Great Himalaya Trail.
Along the way, you will walk along paths used mostly by locals, as very few trekkers make their way to the wild east of Nepal. For those who do, the reward lies in more than just the breathtaking views of Kanchenjunga and its companions. Like neighbouring Makalu Barun, the region endures the full force of the monsoon and is consequently bursting with life. Over 2000 different flowering plants have been recorded here, and you’ll see some of the richest rhododendron forests in Nepal. New species are still being discovered in the pristine forests!
The east of Nepal also provides a fascinating introduction to its cultural diversity. The villages tend to be more prosperous than elsewhere in Nepal, but the further you go the more isolated the communities. An easy way to make friends is to join the locals for a heart-warming drink of hot tongba, the fermented millet drink of the east.