Manaslu & Tsum: We’re back

(And yes, we’ve been back for some time….)

Here’s Charles’ schematic map of what we did:

Manaslu Trek Schematic Map 2018

Over the past few years / trips, I’ve found I often don’t want to write a “we’re back” blogpost immediately on my return, particularly after a big trip. I suspect there’s a bit about being worn out, and a bit about the need to process everything that happens on a 4 week trek. I’m often quite grumpy by the end – tiredness again and my reserves of bonhomie reduced to near zero. It’s quite telling that the last big trip where I did want email / blog about the trip straight away was Ladakh. Shorter trips – like Walking in Northern Albania – are easier; all the more so when they’re doing something novel, like snow shoeing.

The delay is’t entirely due to emotional fatigue though – we did a huge amount in Manaslu and Tsum, not just trekking but LED* solar light distribution, and – a first for me – running eye clinics to distribute glasses courtesy of Pat Booth’s super guide and two shoe boxes of donated spectacles. Chhering’s experience of doing eye tests, both with Pat and without her, in remote communities where older people in particular can’t always read, and aren’t familiar with the Roman alphabet, was invaluable.

Steffi and Anchering.  L.E.D eye glass clinic at Chule

Chhering and Steffi. L.E.D. eye glass clinic at Chhule. Photo courtesy of Charles Ng

But more than that, the first 10 days were a return to Tsum for the first time since April 2015 when Hazel, Anthony and I trekked to Mu Gompa and back with Val. (Hard to believe that it was our first Nepal trek with Val and Sirdar Chhering.) The April 2015 Nepal earthquake struck a couple of weeks after we’d left, the Gorkha epicentre only miles away, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would villages we’d passed through and stayed in still be there? What about the homes we’d visited and the families we’d met? Who’d died? Who’d been injured? Who’d lost their homes and their livelihoods? Who’d left? Who’d be left?

It turned out that the biggest changes in Tsum and indeed all along the trail from Sotikhola weren’t earthquake related, they were changes wrought by government economic policies on tourism, development and infrastructure – lodge and tea house accommodation had been approved for Tsum just before we’d gone there in 2015, but we were too early to see much evidence of building although we did see some in Chhokang Paro. Three and a half years later there were lodges galore, and the tourists to match. We still camped, dining in a mixture of homes of folks Val knows (always a highlight), in school rooms and in the dining tent.

The bigger, more dramatic and less happy changes were in infrastructure – the road has been blasted past lovely Laxshmi’s lodge in Lapubesi in anticipation of flooding the valley for the Budi Gandaki HEP scheme. The road building reaches far into Tsum, and this was the hardest to see. The trail that Hazel and I had taken to Mu Gompa, crossing old wooden bridges, scrambling over glacially tumbled rocks and boulders, passing (aways keeping to the left) lines of stone chortens and long, long mani walls…. Obliterated. In its place, a blasted road, reaching far beyond Mu Gompa up to the Tibetan border. The magical morning walk Val, Chhering and I did north of Mu, high above the river ravine, over pristine crisp white snow …. It’s gone forever. Now the same chortens perch precariously at the roadside edges, Chinese JCBs parked in rough camps nearby. Devastating.

The spirituality has gone – not that I am a religious person at all, but Mu was special.

But, if you’d never been there before, you just wouldn’t realise how different the place was.

Thankfully, Dhephu Doma, the small Ani Gompa that perches in a side valley a few hundred metres above Mu, and the path up to it, were unscathed. As you climb the new road falls out of sight leaving you with almost the same, beautiful view of Shringi, Ganesh, the Upper Tsum valley and the twin villages of Chhule and Nile. And this time I did it under gorgeous blue skies.

At the end of the whole trek, after crossing the Larkya La, the Manaslu Circuit joins the Annapurna, and the final two days were retracing in reverse the route Hazel and I had done as our first long trek – the Annapurna Circuit in 2009. I was ready for this to be changed by the road building, I’d read enough about how the road reaches all the way up to Manang and beyond and I’d seen how much Jomsom had changed between 2009 and my return there in 2017 at the end of our Dolpo trek.

The changes are wholesale – I struggled to recognise anywhere. Walking down the gravelled road from Dharapani, waterfalls on our left and right, water coursing across the road to reach the river down below, I suddenly realised that we were on the section where the Mountain Kingdoms crew had manhandled us across rain swollen steams after we’d holed up for the previous half a day in Tal after an exceedingly wet few days. Later that same day 2018 time, we were on the east side of the Marshyangdi Khola, walking on a path cut into the rock and over the sandy flats down at the river side. The mud/scree landslide we scurried over in 2009 has been absorbed back into the landscape, and the village of Tal now stretches further north and south along the trail.

Amazingly for lunch we stopped at the same place that the MK group had taken refuge in back in 2009. The basic one-large-shared-bed-platform rooms we’d stayed in then, and the outside loo with the head-whackingly low roof beam, were no more however. In their place a 2 storey lodge houses twin rooms with en suites. The dining room was still there though, and the outside picnic tables set in the garden.

The following day brought us to the end of the trek, and our final night farewell to the crew took place in another familiar lodge – Chamje’s Hotel Tibet Lhasa. The village itself transformed by the road that’s replaced the gentle trail. Tractors, lorries and jeeps now pass beneath the low wooden balustrades of the lodge’s first floor rooms. One of the charms of the Hotel Tibet Lhasa is that everything is still wood – the walls, floors, ceilings. Even the kitchen sink.

S0, the new bit – Manaslu. First few days, from Gampul to Prok were gloomy and overcast, and the narrow valley made for enclosed views. But once past Ghap the weather and the views improved. Our early morning arrival at Hinang Gompa and the walk up the valley to the glacier were magical, as was the trail through Lihi, Sho and Lho. Samagoan was a veritable metropolis (but in a good way), and the day trip from there up to Phuyang / Pung Gyen Gompa was stunning. The tiny gompa is nestled amidst the foothills of mighty Manaslu ( मनास्लु) (8163 m), set in the vast glacial valley that is surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges and more high peaks including Ngadi Chuli (Peak 29) (7871 m – the 20th highest peak in the world) and Himalchuli (7893 m – the 18th). We picnicked with local ladies and anis, sharing boiled eggs, chapatis and cheese, and being treated to a small glass or two of local rakshi.

Val’s Yak Kharka above Samdo was a treat too, with Gori leading Doug, Steffi and I up to the top of what we called “Samdo Ri” for stunning panoramic views of Ngadi Chuli, Manaslu, Naike Peak, Larkya Peak and Larkya North to the west; Nyasin Himal and the valley to the pass at Lajyung Bhanjyang, and Tibet, to the east.

The Larkya La was a bit of a let down after that – well, an anticlimax, let’s say – in the sense that the pass itself doesn’t come with much of a view. The day of the crossing does have fabulous vistas though and ever changing terrain: starting off in the predawn dark on the trail tracking below the glacial moraine ridge, dawn rays hitting Manaslu, getting yet another perspective to add to those from Lho, Shyala and Phuyang, Sama, Samdo and Dharamsala. Yes, I guess that’s why it’s called the Manaslu Circuit. We’d see another side of Manaslu at Bimthang and a few final, fleeting glimpses through the trees on the trail down to the twin tea houses at Yak Kharka / Chauli Kharka.

Gradually you leave the grass and soil behind, moving onto stony stretches that grow to become bouldered. You pick out the route by the poles set up to guide winter traders through the deep, deep snow. A last tea house provides welcome hot lemon. And great views. As you approach the pass you skirt shallow lakes frozen solid, and catch sight of the prayer flags at the pass. Once there, we celebrated with “Bombay” mix and Green & Blacks mini bars of chocolate – YUM. A breather.

And then the descent. Gentle to start – which is good because the views are stupendous: Lamjung Himal, Annapurna II, Kang Guru, Kechakyu Himal, Gyaji Kang, Nemjung, Himjung, Himlung, Panbari peaks, with the Thoche / Ponkar Glacier and Ponkar Lake below.

View west from Larkya Pass (5106m).  High Point of Trek

Larkya La descent. Charles’ panorama of the westward view. 

But soon the path steepens, and you’re zig zagging down into the valley, the weird solid blue waters of Ponkar Tal disappearing as you near the moraine walls. Grass reappears. Shrubs and bushes. Birds. Things you didn’t realise had gone. And then you see Bimthang. The surreal sunshine yellow chalets, the blue roofs, the wooden fenced corrals, the people. You’re back to the mainstream.

Other memories – wind chimes at Chokkang Paro. Hairy walkways, some metal, some natural, high above the river in Tsum. Watching lammergeier, himalayan griffon vultures, hawks and choughs on a quiet afternoon above the Yak Kharka. Our first glasses clinic in the courtyard of a house in Chhule, another at Hinang Gompa – inside this time, with a Welsh Whisky Chaser. The side trip to Gumba Lungdang and the stately sunrise over Himal Chuli and Ngadi Chuli, and clear, clear views of Ganesh I, which had stayed resolutely hidden in cloud during the previous day’s 1200m ascent through the forest. Cheeky nuns. VTOs! Old ladies back chatting one another. Distributing lights in Leru in another family house courtyard. Trail runners at Mu and Hinang.

Mary.  View of Himal Chuli

Charles’ photo of me on the trail to Sama

Being in Nepal in November – for the first time since 2011’s Three High Passes trek – seeing the harvest in full swing, literally, hand scything and sickle-ing the barley and amaranth was lovely. The colours of the Autumn berries and leaves. The harvest festival at Dzong with everyone coming from the surrounding villages of Upper Tsum to watch the dancing and ceremony, all in their best festival-going outfits. Fabulous fresh food every day courtesy of autumn crops from market gardens and summer stores, another world from the Dolpo menu. Rakshi rakshi rakshi – in Pung Gyen and Chhokang Paro, Samdo and Bimthang, and elsewhere.

Charles and his drone. Steffi and the spider in Chamje. Doug’s dawn call at Gumba Lungdung. The Girls getting to know one another, chilling out in Chhule as we shared a tent and waited for Gori, the mules and our kit to arrive, chatting about life, sharing reading recommendations, laughing. Chhering, Gori, Pemba. Dali and his lovely smile and super food. Learning that smiley Mossum had died, falling 300m to his death on a client-demanded descent from Dhaulagiri.

Steffi, Anne and Mary.  Tea House Lunch stop.  On trail to Dyang

Charles’ photo of Steffi, Anne and me at Nyak Phedi. A favourite.

Four cards from Phil. Twenty one nights under canvas. One more in a small tea house in Lihi to dry out after our only day with rain. Our favourite tent. Disliking – intensely, but irrationally (perhaps) – Tilche and our final campsite at the Apple Garden Lodge. Seeing that the rooms Hazel and I stayed in at Jagat had been washed away by the river (after the earthquake? I don’t know).

The group we met at Dharamsala with the girl with severe AMS and the British gent who was trying to find someone with more expertise/confidence than their guide. Soaking up the sun at Chhule Gompa, gazing at the views back down the valley and watching a big group of birds circling something high above. Five little monkeys jumping on the bed, sung by Sama’s liveliest little monkey. First time frisbee in a field at Domje – who knew it would be such a novelty in Nepal?

Relaxing, showered, hair washed, with a beer, at Siddhartha Garden Hotel in Pokhara – serenity with super views and great hosts.

Finding the best falafel in KTM (thanks Charles!).

But most of all, a big thank you to Val.

Chhering, Val and Manaslu. On the trail to Dharamsala.
Chhering, Val and Manaslu. On the trail to Dharamsala.

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So, what did prompt this write up? Getting photos from Doug, Steffi and Charles.

If you’ve made it this far, watch Charles’ trek montage:

Manaslu and Tsum Valley Trek 2018

Charles’ montage: Manaslu and Tsum Valley Trek 2018

Plus this November’s Nepal trek is going to need some more blogposts soon. I’m going up a step, to tackle two Trekking Peaks with a very high pass in between. I hope I’ve not bitten off more than I can chew. Or, more accurately, more than my weedy arms can manage in terms of jumar-ing up, abseiling down. I take comfort in Val’s confidence in me. Mera Peak, Amphu Lapsta, Imja Tse – here I come.

I feel ready now to look through my 2210 photos and videos and to get selected ones up onto Flickr. And to make a start on Photos and Notes.

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* You can read more about Light Education Development (aka LED) on their website – it’s Val’s charity, I’m a trustee.