The name of the game on the Manaslu Circuit is acclimatization: getting your flatlander body conditioned to survive in the low-oxygen environs at the top of 5160m Larke La pass. Staying healthy, uninjured, warm and dry also count for a lot. After leaving the Tsum Valley we started a six day climb along the Budhi Gandaki from 1800m to 4460m at Larke Phedi with the pass, and the dangers associated with it, always in mind.
Up we went, counter-clockwise around the Manaslu Himal with the towering centerpiece, Mt. Manaslu (at 8163m the 8th highest and 4th most deadly mountain in the world), and Manaslu North (7157m) often visible to our left and a variety of lesser peaks on all sides. In order to start pushing our bodies’ limits and to avoid sleep-induced respiratory problems, we hiked high during the day and slept low at night.
During a rest day in Samagaon (3520m) we hiked along the Manaslu Glacier to 4200m on the Manaslu basecamp trail. As we rested at our high point we listened and watched as pieces of the glacier broke apart to plummet down toward the turquoise blue Birendra Tal below. The sound of a groaning, cracking glacier as it warmed in the eastern morning sun was only surpassed by the booming crash of these periodic avalanches.
The next day, after reaching Samdo (3875m), we hiked straight up the nearby hill through low-lying, fragrant juniper to an altitude of 4500m. As was the case on most days, clouds started to roll in and the wind picked up significantly by the early afternoon whipping the ubiquitous prayer flags into a frenzy. Before climbing down we were able to get our first glimpse of the pass, a formidable jumble of loose rock and drifted snow in a landscape formed by glaciers long ago.
The last stop before the pass was the stone huts of Larke Phedi, an outpost with no other purpose than as a launch pad for crossing Larke La. The afternoon in Larke Phedi was spent with another steep climb, this time to 4800m. The views to the pass were partially obscured by cloud and mist adding to the ominous sense that we were heading into a place where mistakes could be quite costly. That evening Braxton was stricken with a bout of food poisoning and the next day’s pass attempt looked uncertain. Nonetheless, we set the alarms for 3:30am, and, Braxton having miraculously recovered, awoke from fitful sleeps to pack, sip some tea, gag down a chapati and boiled egg and head into the pre-dawn darkness on a slow but steady pace toward Larke La.
Within three hours we’d reached the pass and by 8:15am, having taken the requisite photos, we started a treacherous descent down the west side. Ice-covered rocks, drifted snow, and loose gravel contributed to many a stumble mostly landing on our backsides and none of them serious. We avoided turning ankles or breaking bones during the four hour downhill run and pulled into Bimthang (3590m) just after noon ready for a hot meal and our first hot shower in over a week.
The final day of walking took us on a relatively gradual descent through stunning forest scenery to the trail head at Dharapani from which we made our way by road back to Kathmandu the next day.
Crossing Larke La — a literal high point in the trip — gave us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but it was, at the same time, anti-climactic and felt like a milestone marking the final stages of the trip we’ve been on since mid-January. Oddly, the ease with which we crossed the pass was almost disappointing: the much-feared disasters did not materialize and no stories of derring-do or perseverance in the face of tough odds emerged from the experience. Yes, thankfully! But the notion that the trip would be all downhill from here (back to the flush toilets and varied menu of Kathmandu, back to the wired world, back towards home via the clean, organized countries of Europe, back to our own beds, a car, a refrigerator) brought with it a feeling of loss; specifically, the loss of a sense of adventure that comes with entering the unknown.
Resigned to the fact that now we are heading toward the known, we are really looking forward to getting there!
(We should add that a guide is required for the Manaslu Circuit, and we were accompanied by a great one, Jaya Bhandari, and a strong porter, Tara. These guys were a tremendous help and the trip would not have been as successful or enjoyable without them. They were both great with the boys. Jaya is also a naturalist, birder, yoga instructor, and reiki healer, all of which came in handy throughout the trek. If you are considering a trek in Nepal, get in touch with these guys through http://www.thirdpoletreks.com or directly with Jaya at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
Opening with a family photo atop a snow covered peak surrounded by stunning mountain scenery is an irresistible gimmick. Sorry. Getting high into the Himalaya was one of the goals of this trek, but getting there and back made up the bulk of the experience.
Here you are either walking up or walking down, and the ups and downs are massive. Our 12-day trek started at the end of the road in the town of Syaprubesi (1500m x 3.3 = 4950ft) and took us up the Langtang Valley over the following five days to the settlement of Kyanjin Gompa (3900m) with a day trip to the nearby “hill” of Kyanjin Ri (4600m). The return trip took us back down the river to Bamboo (1950m) before heading back up through the relatively large (and uniquely electrified) town of Thulo Syaphru (2250m), the tiny two-house Foprang Danda and the beautiful views from Laurebina Yak (3900m). On our final day we descended from Laurebina Yak to the roadside town of Dunche (1900m) to catch a bumpy, windy, 6-hour jeep ride back to Kathmandu on roads with precipitous drops through switchbacks and landslides. For those of you doing the math, the last day’s descent was the equivalent of walking down from the peak of our highest east coast mountain, Mt. Mitchell (2037m), to sea level.
This is not a wilderness area, but a place lightly populated mostly by third-generation Tibetans. Religious objects are everywhere. Here are a few that we saw along the trail.
But not all of the religious objects were Buddhist. On the trail to the sacred Hindu lakes of Gosainkund, Shiva images start to appear.
The trails themselves are much-used footpaths that have connected settlements for hundreds of years. This is a roadless area, so everything that moves here moves along these paths. That includes not only the people, but the goods. Pack animals carry cement, rice and other bulk items that are not likely to be broken when bashed against trees or rocks on a narrow trail. Humans are the pack animals for everything else. It was a painful and sobering sight to see men (young and old) hiking for three leg-trembling days (Syaprubesi to Kyanjin Gompa), often in flip flops, with the following items across their backs supported by a strap over the forehead. (Photographing these guys seemed too voyeuristic, so words will have to suffice.) Five 4×8 foot sheets of 1/4 inch plywood; 2×8 foot rolls of galvanized, corrugated sheet metal roofing material; reams of rebar; several cases of 750ml bottles of beer; solar panels, brackets, and piping for solar hot water systems; and the ubiquitous heavy-ass load of unidentified stuff to be consumed by trekkers somewhere further up the trail. A three-day haul with 90-150 pounds strapped to the back will bring in approximately $35. In Nepal this is big money; enough, apparently, to destroy your body getting it.
In addition to the lowly pack-animal porter hauling commodities up the trail, many trekkers hire their own personal porters to carry their gear so they can walk with a small day pack. The juxtaposition of doughy trekker with day pack against sinewy porter with three large backpacks strapped around his head and back was a tough one to see over and over again. We are used to carrying our own gear when we hike, and did so on this trek. But was that the “right” thing to do? As a result, we left at least one Nepali unemployed who would otherwise have made as much as $15-20 per day carrying our stuff. The porters we passed were not concerned about this dilemma and instead invariably commented with glee on the size of the boys’ packs. Some images from the trail.
The day-to-day was what made the trip. We met great people along the way, both local hosts and international trekkers. We ate mediocre but filling, carb-heavy meals and drank lots of hot drinks. We enjoyed good weather almost all of the time. And we slept well after long days of intense exercise (except when sharing lodging with large groups of loud Koreans . . .). Here are some images that capture some of those experiences.
Every day on the trek was a good one, but the best one had to be the day that we set out from Thulo Syaphru on the way to Shin Gompa (an 1100m climb). It had rained the night before, which was an unusual weather event this time of year. The trails were a bit slick and the sky was still overcast. After an hour or so thunderheads started rumbling and we sought shelter where we could find it under the eaves of a storage shed. As we crouched there with the temperatures dropping and the rain increasing we received good information from a passing Nepali of a tea house ten minutes up the trail. We made a run for it and managed to reach the warmth and shelter just as the skies opened up. The next four hours were spent on benches around a wood burning stove with an American birder, a Canadian wanderer, two German medical students and their various guides and porters sipping tea, eating various combinations of noodles, rice and potatoes, and watching a pan on the stove fill with water dripping from the ceiling. It was heaven compared to the outdoor alternative. When the weather finally cleared we got back on the trail and continued our climb through slushy forests to the ridge top clearing of Foprang Danda. The two tea houses that usually serve as a lunch stop became our home for the afternoon and night, and Foprang Danda became our favorite trail moment. Our young host cooked up an excellent dinner and we slept hard and well crammed into a room no bigger than the bed itself oblivious to the rats sharing our space and unconcerned about the frigid outdoor squat toilet with the shower curtain door. Rising at 5:30AM we caught the clear morning views to the west, north and east as the sun rose to the sound of roosters and nothing else.
Happiness is trekking with your family on the rooftop of the world.
OK, OK, since so many people want to know… we did not actually eat the rats. They were not offered to us and were instead eaten by the guides and village women who were cooking. Unfortunately, they are probably used to westerners squealing and then photographing their dinner, one of their only sources of protein. Honestly, it just did not seem that gross in the middle of the jungle. Several claim that they were fully prepared to eat them…
From Luang Prabang we traveled eight windy, bumpy (and for some team members, barfy) hours by minibus to the town of Luang Namtha — one of the jumping off points for exploring the Nam Ha National Protected Area — for a three-day guided jungle trek. The highlights of this adventure on the eastern edge of the Golden Triangle were not found in the hiking itself or in the flora and fauna, but in the people.
On the hiking: it was steep up and down, at times treacherously slick, jungle trekking with few views through the dense foliage (despite relatively high ridge and summit trails) in what an Ashevillian (not to mention a Vermonter) would consider extreme heat and humidity. (Nonetheless, our guide, Tom, referred to this time of year as the “cool dry season”.) On the fauna: we saw little of it but heard some pretty “jungley” noises probably produced by birds and frogs (interspersed with some mysterious nighttime shrieks and crashes). On the flora: we saw a lot of it, but, with no expert botanist with good English language skills on the team, we did not learn much about it.
The people made the trip. Our guide Tom was a gentle, knowledgeable young man who, along with his sidekick Zhuan, could fashion almost everything you would need out of the raw materials around them (mostly bamboo). These items included strong, light weight rattan walking sticks; bamboo picnic tables, shot glasses, chopsticks, spring loaded pea shooters; and banana leaf food wrappers. Our fellow trekkers Pawel and Goshe provided good stories of previous treks in Ethiopia and important insight into their recent trekking experiences in Nepal (where we hope to trek next month). Pawel’s camera size (large) and shooting frequency (often) indicate that he will produce some great images (which we hope to receive by email someday). Our other fellow trekker, Ian, was a mechanical engineer with the Mars Curiosity mission, responsible, among other things, for the percussive part of the rock drill the rover has recently started using to take samples of Mars’ rock layers. The drilling had just started when Ian left on the trek, so he was anxious during the trek to find out whether the drill (specifically the percussive element) actually worked. (It did.) Ian’s knowledge of things galactic came in handy when answering the boys’ many questions about life on Mars and etc. We’re calling those Q & A sessions homeschool science class for the week.
Night one was spent in a rustic jungle camp. Among the practical issues faced by residents of a jungle camp is protecting food (here sticky rice grains) from rodents. Snakes take care of part of this problem, but the complete solution involves trapping, roasting and eating the critters, specifically jungle rats. Sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and served with a variety of meat, vegetables and spicy sauces was the order of the day at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Day one: “I love sticky rice!” Day three: “Oh no! No more sticky rice!”
Night two was spent in a Lanten village. The Lanten (variably known as the Lantien, Landian, and Yao Mun) may have originated in the Yangtse River Valley of China but migrated south into southern China and the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia during the last centuries. They are closely related to the better-known Hmong (better known in the US for their role as our allies during the Vietnam War). Walking into this village, accessible only by footpath, was a highlight of the three days. Chickens, pigs, dogs, and cows roamed unfettered through this community of 113 souls (down from 115 a month earlier). The effects of poverty (and possibly the shallow depth of the Lanten gene pool in this region (the tribes apparently do not intermarry very frequently)) were apparent on their faces. The first three grades of schooling are offered in the village, after which ambitious young scholars who choose to continue their formal education must hike 3 to 4 difficult hours to a school on the main road where they spend the school week before returning home for the weekend. Having hiked that route out of the village on Day 3, I can attest that those students do hike uphill to school, both ways.