We spent five days hiking into the remote Tsum Valley as part of our larger trek around the Manaslu Circuit.
The Tsum Valley runs through a protrusion of Nepalese territory surrounded by Tibet on three sides and nestled among peaks topping 7400m, including the massive Ganesh Himal to the south and east. The Tibetan border is within 10km from all parts of the Tsum, but is only accessible via 5000m passes at the northeastern end of valley. The southwestern entrance to the valley is through a narrow gorge at the confluence of the Budhi Gandaki and the Siyar Khola. The misty weather on the day we entered, the moss draped trees, and the quiet walking path cushioned with pine needles all added to the sense that this was a secret place that time, so far, has forgotten.
The Tsum Valley trek follows an out-and-back route that does not fit in to most trekkers’ schedules, and it has only been open to non-Nepalis for a few years. As a result, the valley is relatively untouched by the trekking economy and culture; accommodation and food are very basic and the daily lives of the people in the valley revolve around the activities they’ve revolved around for hundreds of years. This is in stark contrast to Langtang (reported on in an earlier post) or the Annapurna area (which Amy and I visited in the 1990s), both of which have been so overrun by trekkers that it is difficult to find any remnants of the pre-trekking cultures. Perhaps the inconvenient remoteness (it takes a half day hair-raising bus ride, a half day bone-crunching jeep ride, and three days of walking to get to the entrance of the valley) and expense (permits and guides required) will help preserve the valley in its current state, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Get there now.
In order to picture the Tsum Valley, imagine your most idyllic vision of Tibet: a high-altitude, wide valley of fields demarcated from by stone walls, a bright green, early wheat crop in the ground, dirt footpaths running through medieval villages, surrounded by soaring white peaks in all directions with a sometimes meandering, sometimes plunging river running through it. Add all of the religious symbols of the Buddhist culture: the carved stones along the mani walls to remember those who’ve passed, the periodic stupa and chorten, and the ever present blue, white, red, green and yellow pray flags. Add gaggles of children with cheeks so sun- and wind-burned that they bleed, their faces caked with dirt and snot but still full of energy and excitement as they march to school or chase livestock with a stick. Remove the several decades of Chinese occupation and infrastructure development that have occurred just over the border and you will begin to envision this place.
In order to imagine the basic level at which life is led in the Tsum, imagine a place where cow and yak dung are valuable commodities collected for fertilizer, but also for fuel. Pack animals and people carry anything that enters or leaves the valley. There are no motorized vehicles, no power tools, no cell phone signal, no stores (beyond the Chumling general store), no indoor plumbing. We spent one long day hiking between meals in search of a pack of crackers or other snack to no avail. There was no food for sale in this super rural and isolated place. Electric power, if available, comes from small household photovoltaic panels (enough to power several compact florescent bulbs and to recharge batteries) or micro hydro generators. The latter produce enough electricity to light a village or two, but only if they are functioning. In Burji, for example, the electric wires were strung and connected, but there was no power. Apparently the generator had failed, and, without a local technician to deal with the repair, they dismantled the unit and carried it back to Kathmandu for servicing.
For three of our four nights in the Tsum we stayed in unconventional accommodation (ie, not a teahouse or lodge built to house trekkers). In the small village of Chumling we found shelter in tiny rooms above the Chumling general store. Happy to be out of the rain that had plagued us in the early days of the trek, we ate what was served while squeezed in front of the store counter looking at the wide variety of goods for sale. Alcohol and cigarettes dominated the selection, but shoes, biscuits, bulk salt and sugar, soap, a few cell phones (to be used we don’t know where), and other strange items like vacuum packed ‘Instant Spicy Fish’ were also on offer. Many of these goods had come down the trail from nearby Tibet. Pirated timber moves in the opposite direction from the lower valley up across the border.
Our second night, in the Upper Tsum Valley village of Chekompa, was spent in a Tibetan family’s homestay. We slept above the stable under a loosely slated roof and draped plastic tarps that did not prove to be 100% waterproof when tested by a midnight shower. We’d spent most of that day hiking steeply uphill from the lower to the upper section of the valley and slept pretty well despite the drips.
Our third night, in the even smaller village of Burji, we stayed in a newly-opened lodge with a legitimate roof and a sign advertising 24 hour hot showers. The leak-proof roof provided a comfortable night’s sleep. The hot showers proved to be aspirational, perhaps to be realized at some future date when the proprietor invests in solar panels or a gas canister hook up.
We spent the fourth day hiking from Burji up to Mu Gompa, a monastery perched on a wind swept promontory at 3700m. This barren place houses a group of young monks who cooked up bowls of instant noodles and cups of steaming butter tea, the only food within miles. Several kilometers distant and over 1500m higher one could access the passes into Tibet. We met a group of young men who were hiking into this high area to spend several months gathering plants used in Tibetan medicine. They anticipated that Chinese merchants would come across the border to buy their harvest before the end of the season.
Our fourth and final night in the valley was spent in the Rachen Gompa nunnery where the nuns had indeed managed not one but two solar hot water systems, one for the nuns and one for the faculty. The trickle of hot water on a cold evening at over 3200m felt like heaven. Even closer to heaven (or at least more closely related to the topic) was our observation of an early morning puja in the central monastery. Rising at 5:30am we followed our ears to the daily breakfast-n-prayer ceremony where 50+ crimson-robed, shaved-headed nuns ranging in age from teenaged girls to wizened elders sat cross legged in rows chanting, drumming, blowing horns and conch shells in an orchestrated cacophony, intermittently sipping salty butter tea and eating from bowls of dry tsampa porridge. We sat, watched and listened, sipping our own butter tea. With our eyes closed we could begin to hear the patterns emerging from the chanting, which started to feel less confused and more powerful as we leaned against the brightly painted plaster walls in the centuries old temple in the middle of nowhere.
We felt a deep sense of awe, but also of sadness, hiking out of the Upper Tsum Valley on our fifth day. Down we went on this sunny but chilly morning passing through all of the villages and fields we’d passed during our ascent. Down narrow, steep stairs cut into the sides of cliffs with precipitous drops and certain death by falling on one side and the threat of crushing rocks falling from above on the other. Past the mani walls, across the suspension bridges, along the dirt paths between mud plastered stone houses, walls piled high with firewood gathered over the year and pasted with hand-patted dung patties drying in the sun, to emerge from the valley by the end of a long day and reenter the flow of human and animal traffic climbing through the Nubri Valley of the Manaslu Circuit.