Dates: Nov. 17 - Dec. 8
Manaslu is the eighth highest mountain into world at 8,163 meters above sea level. It’s impressive doubled-edged summit sets Manaslu apart from the other mountains -- white-capped giants in their own right -- constituting the Manaslu massif. Surrounding Manaslu is the eponymous Conservation in addition to the adjacent Tsum Valley (pronounced “tsoom”). I trekked for twenty-two days through the region.
Both the Manaslu Conservation and the Tsum Valley are protected lands. Visitors to the reserves are required to be accompanied by a guide and trek in groups of two or more (i.e., at least two permits must be purchased). My trekking buddy, Rob, is a lovely Dutch guy, that I met in my hostel in Kathmandu. Our guide, Sadu, is originally from a village in the Kathmandu Valley but has been serving as a porter and guide for almost as long as I’ve been alive — a fact corroborated by the 1:1 frequency of his cigarette breaks against my water breaks. At first I was weary about going with a guide — it’s not my style. But the three of us quickly developed a good rapport and it was immensely helpful having someone with us who could communicate with the locals.
The trek started off in Argughat Bazar (570 meters above sea level) — a trading post in the southeastern part of the Manaslu Conversation area. We reached Argughat by bus from Kathmandu. The trail sets off from Argughat along the Burhi Gandak River, following an ancient salt trading route. The paths winding along the mountain sides, high over the river, were often narrow and precarious since landslides are a common occurrence. Often times we had to cling to the side of the cliffs in order to allow caravans of mules or cattle to pass. When I asked a local if anything annoys them about the trekkers, he responded that the only thing he could think of was that they often got in the way of the animals, blocking the path to snap photos. Admittedly, as can be seen from the following photograph, I am guilty of this transgression.
The Manaslu Conservation area, formed in 1998, comprises six climatic zones corresponding with elevations ranging from 1,000 to 4,500 meters. Among the diverse array of species that enjoy protections in the reserve, are alarmingly large species of insects like the praying mantis and nephila maculata, an orb-weaving spider; in addition to, musk deer, Himalayan tahr, blue sheep, and the elusive but legendary snow leopard. The Manaslu Conservation is primarily inhabited by the indigenous Nubri people, but ethnic Tibetans and a small number of other Nepali ethnicities also dwell there.
While the Nubri have been exposed to foreigners since Nepal opened to tourism the 1950s, only about 2,000 people visit the Manaslu Conservation each year (this is substantially fewer than the number of tourists received by Annapurna, Everest or Langtang). Thus, the Nubri and the other ethnicities residing in the area are not jaded towards tourists. The locals I encountered were very friendly and welcoming, albeit reserved. However, things are likely to soon change as popularity of the Manaslu circuit trek has burgeoned since 2010 when it became possible to do the entire circuit without needing to bring camping supplies. Now, every few miles, there are “teahouses” offering accommodations and meals. Some teahouses are very simple guesthouses, bordering on homestays, while others are large double-story structures capable of providing accommodations for a couple dozen trekkers. For now though, the lodges are underused, waiting for tourism in the area to really kick off. It’s expected that the region will not stay quiet for long and is often referred to as the “new Annapurna,” which currently receives over one hundred thousand visitors annually.
After four days of trekking in the Manaslu Conservation, we split off from the Manaslu trail and entered Tsum Valley, a separate protected area adjoining the Manaslu Reserve. Tsum is home to a population of about 4000 ethnic Tibetans knows Tsumbas. The Tsumbas have been inhabiting the remote region or thousands of years. Currently, the region is only accessible by foot and helicopter, with most goods being transported to the area by mule from Tibet. However, since the 2015 Nepal earthquake, China has closed its border crossing to Tsum Valley, reporting that it will reopen the border after fixing infrastructure damage. In July 2016, monsoon rains further damaged roads along the border, delaying the reopening of the border crossing until spring or summer 2017. Due to the present border situation, goods are either smuggled into the valley from China or brought in all the way from Kathmandu by mule. Since the low-lying route connecting the valley to the rest of Nepal is not accessible during the monsoon season, the Tsumbas are in a somewhat precarious position at the moment. Be that as it may, the Tsumbas are used to living simply since Tsum has historically been bypassed by mainstream development due to its historical remoteness and inaccessibility.
Tsum only saw its first set of tourists in 2007 when it was formally opened for trekking and tourism activity by Nepal's government. Since only a fraction of the visitors who do the Manaslu circuit trek tack on Tsum Valley, the area still feels very much untouched by foreign influence (save the WWE that the Tsumba youth love to watch). However, every year the region sees more visitors and I suspect that within a decade Manaslu and Tsum will be teeming with trekkers. I feel very lucky to have visited the region when I did to have witnessed a unique and still largely intact (oh but the WWE!) vernacular culture.
It took us four days after entering Tsum to get to Nile (3365 meters), a small village that is the end of the line as for homestays in the valley. From Nile, we took a day hike to a monastery and then stayed in Nile from one more night before descending the valley the same way we came. Once we returned to the Manaslu Conservation area, we trekked for six days until arriving at Dharmsala (not the same one in which the Dali Lama resides — that one is in India). Dharmsala, basically a camp ground with a stone canteen, is the final stop before the Larke pass, a 5,106 meter high glacial saddle bridging the Manaslu Conservation with the Annapurna Conservation, where our trip would end (yes, we were required to purchase permits for three different reserves). As winds grow forceful in the morning, we rose at 3:30 A.M. to cross the pass. Following Larke, it was all easy downhill walking for another six days until we made it to Bhulbhule, from which we took caught a bus back to Kathmandu.