Arriving in Kathmandu, I cabbed to the centrally located, cozy and quiet, Yala Peak Hotel where I was welcomed by the friendly and most accommodating owner, Durga, who got me set up in an upstairs private room and then my favorite, a cup of hot chai tea with milk and honey. Later I hooked up with Lance, an expat American living in a Buddhist Monastery in Thailand and we met with Durga to discuss which trek to take. Both of us had already walked Everest Base Camp, Annapurna and a few other treks so we were looking for something different. Durga suggested The Manaslu Trek. It is a bit more off the beaten track and when Durga mentioned the Tsum Valley option into a Tibetan like region we were sold.
This trek in the Manaslu Region is one of the best with spectacular scenery minus the crowds of EBC or Annapurna. The additional fees and the requirement to have a guide increases the cost but also keeps the numbers of trekkers down. That said, it offers a loop trail like Annapurna and an ascent and descent, Larkya La Pass at 5,106 meters (16,752 feet). 300 meters below Annapurna’s Thorung La Pass.
The trek takes you around Mt. Manaslu, the 8th tallest mountain in the world at 8,156 meters following the Buri Gandaki River up to the higher elevations. One experiences alpine forests, deep gorges, Nepali Villages where you can engage with locals and visit Nepali Temples and Monasteries. The first day walking from Lapu Besi we ran into 3 young girls transporting a crate of 3 chickens to their hometown of Macha Khola. We soon were helping them with their load and spent the day walking with them and talking over tea breaks. In chatting, I learned the girls were of different religions; Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian. This surprised me as they seemed to be such good friends. A great lesson of the beauty of Tolerance.
A must option if you have the time is to veer north into Tsum Valley which requires a separate fee but takes you into a region that is more Tibetan than Nepali. The food is Tibetan, the people look and are Tibetan, and Tibet surrounds the Valley on 3 sides. There are just a few accommodations but this option is not to be missed in my opinion.
Upon leaving Manaslu you turn into a side valley and if you are aware you may feel a change. To me and my companion, it felt different, lighter in a way. Perhaps this is Shangri La I thought as I walked. I soon met a Buddhist Monk walking with a few other monks and his entourage. He was a local visiting home and was not the head Monk at a Monastery over the border in Darjeeling. After a very nice chat, he gave me his card and invited me to visit in Darjeeling. While Manaslu is less crowded than other treks, Tsum Valley is even quieter. Be prepared for a special experience of connecting with the people in a unique high energy locale.
We ended up that day in Chumlein where there was a big Buddhist Festival with scores of monks praying from inside a large tent. They shared their food with us and dabbed our faces with various colors of paint. Big bowls of dal bhat, the common national dish; rice, lentil soup to pour over the rice and local veggies is the perfect mountain trekking food.
The next day we continued up the valley staying at a comfortable teahouse but no hot shower. The next morning as I walked my friendly young guide Krishna caught up with me and had 300 Rupees the hotel owner had returned to me because of the lack of hot water for the shower. The Nepali people are almost always honorable and fair.
The third morning offered spectacular mountain views on a beautiful clear sunny day with deep blue skies. We reached the Monastery Mu Gompa high up in the mountains where a single monk welcomed us and shared some spicy Tibetan noodle soup with us. Supposedly, all the other monks were visiting Kathmandu. He apologized as it was all the food he had. We spent a few hours up there enjoying the views and praying in the temple before returning back down.
The day was long as we could not find accommodation in Chule. Krishna asked one local if we could stay at his house. He had no room but insisted we stop for tea. We finally made it to Lar around 4:30 just as snow flurries began. We met a woman on the path who escorted us to her home and teahouse. We were the only guests so she invited us to her home next door where we had to climb up a ladder to the living quarters. We sat in the clean kitchen with Serapa and her infant boy Loposama.
She offered to make us anything for dinner but we opted to just have dal bhat which is what she would be eating to make things easier for her. A lovely evening with these beautiful people. In the morning I scaled the ladder once more and asked Serapa if I could wash my hands before breakfast. She prepared a bowl with warm water which felt luxurious as I dipped my cold hands into the basin. She then served us Tsampa (buckwheat porridge) with Yak milk. Afterwards, Krishna and I walked to the local Temple and joined 4 nuns in morning prayer.
A few days later we were back on the Manaslu Trek heading up the valley enjoying spectacular views all along. The toughest day was the walk over Larkya La Pass.
It started with us waking at 2:45. The conditions up at Dharamsala (4,460 meters) were the worst I have ever seen. The kitchen was filthy and messy. The dining room wasn’t much better. The single toilet was a hole in the ground with a mound of crap rising a foot above the opening. I was glad to get out of there early. Our day started with us waking at 2:45 in order to avoid the late morning afternoon cold winds. This Pass walk was easier and shorter than Thorung La Pass but not by much.
The night was cold but the views in the valley were spectacular as the dark sky faded into shades of blue and red before the sun rose over the white capped Himalayas. The downhill in the snow and ice was tough and I fell 7 times. Stumbled into Bimthamg just before 11.
The following day we walked on to Dharapani where we merged with the Annpaurna Circuit. Here you have the option of veering northwest towards Thorung La Pass or as we did veer south crossing paths with trekkers on the Annapurna Loop to Besi Sahar. There is a road now so many trekkers hire a 4WD vehicle to take them back to Besi Sahar. I chose to walk as there are still some nice paths on the other side of the river away from the dirt road. From Besi Sahar you have a few hour shuttle bus to Pokhara or a longer one to Kathmandu.
Nepali treks begin and end in Kathmandu. Though you will need to fly or bus to your starting point. While one can travel overland from India directly to Pokhara and west Nepal avoiding Kathmandu, most pilgrims fly into Kathmandu from points across the globe. In Kathmandu most arriving pilgrims head directly to Thamel, a tourist ghetto, filled with shops selling everything you need for a trek. There is a surprising range of excellent restaurants; from steakhouses, Italian, French, Pizza, Vegetarian, Indian, Nepal, etc. Walking the streets of Thamel is an experience in itself; with street vendors selling fruit, vegetables, snacks, assorted trinkets and Masala(Chai) Tea. Kathmandu has a unique smell to it; a combination of burning incense, human sweat, and cow dung that is rather pleasant once you get used to it.
While Kathmandu has gotten more crowded and polluted over the past 35 years, it still has its charms. It is also a great walking city. Explore the streets beyond Thamel where you will experience 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Also be sure to bring your camera. I believe the Nepalese are some of the most photogenic people in the world.
Getting up early and walking up the 424 steps to Swayambhunath Buddhist Temple for sunrise with the scores of monkeys. Then going to Pashupatinath Hindu Temple Complex early is a deeply humbling experience. Be sure to walk across the Bagmati River which flows into the Ganges, looking back you will see the various funeral pyres and locals bringing their dead on stretchers for the burning rituals.
For sunset I like to head for another UNESCO site Bodnath Buddhist Stupa to walk around one of the largest spiral stupas in the world. This is a center for the Tibetan Buddhists and there are many monasteries and convents and an excellent place to experience a 10 Day Silent Meditation Retreat. I particularly enjoy eventually making my way to one of the rooftop restaurants on the square to just enjoy the changing colors of the Stupa as day fades into night.
Then of course there is Durbar Square which was heavily damaged by the 2015 Earthquake but is slowly being rebuilt and still worth a visit to view several ancient temples. If possible a visit to the Living Virgin Goddess is interesting. She is replaced though after her first period. If you still have time, a day trip to Bhaktapur Durbar Square with a similar complex of Temples is most interesting.
While there are many hotel and trekking agency options after many visits and treks I have found one that combines great location, good accommodations, great food, and great service. The Yala Peak Hotel offers clean, relatively inexpensive quiet rooms in the heart of Thamel down a side alley offering a bit more quiet and seclusion. The owner, Durga, is one of my favorite Nepali’s and has trained a very friendly accommodating staff catering to your every need. The small Yala Cafe next door offers delicious savory meals and snacks throughout the day. I particularly enjoy their Eggs Benedict at breakfast and their lamb at dinner. And they make a great pot of Masala Tea. Both the Hotel and Cafe are rated in the top 10 of Trip Advisor Hotels and Restaurants.
After many years trying various hotels and trekking agencies, I have come to see Yala Peak and his Agency, www.mountaintrails.com as a home away from home. I am always treated well with a high level of service.