The Tsum Valley – confession, this is not my photo. We didn’t get anywhere near this high, but it gives a great overview (and you see more mountains in this photo than we did from down in the valley). My apologies – I’m not sure who to credit this photo to.

You are here either because you have already trekked in the Solu Kumbu (Everest) or Annapurna region and are now looking for something different or trekking in Nepal is still sitting languishing on your bucket list and you are doing your initial research.  Our family had trekked the Everest region twice (once pre-kids and again in 2009 with kids) and so we were looking for a different trek experience. After much consideration, the short list was either the obvious choice of Annapurna or the neighbouring Manaslu/Tsum Valley. Factors that weighed into our decision was 1. We unfortunately only had 2 weeks of actual trail time available 2. I wasn’t really enthusiastic about high elevation (and low oxygen) – though I had been fine on our last 2 treks (despite an O2 sat reading of 78 at Gorak Shep just below Kalla Patar (5,550 meters) near Everest Base Camp (lesson learned – don’t seek information you don’t want to know)   3. My knees find long downhills a challenge – I still painfully remember the descent from the top of Kilimanjaro several years ago 4. The road building on either side of the Annapurna circuit took the shine off of the Annapurna trek, as did the sheer #’s of trekkers on the trail. 5. The lure of the Tsum Valley – it’s isolation, culture, low numbers of trekkers was attractive. And hey! Who wouldn’t want to spend time in the ‘Hidden Valley of Happiness’? I had also read about the plans to build a road through the Tsum so it appeared that there might be a finite opportunity to visit this remote area unscathed by roadworks and the intrusion of the combustion engine in the narrow valley. If you want to learn more about the impact of the planned road, check out this trailer for the documentary ‘Mani, the Hidden Valley of Happiness at a Crossroads‘.  So it was decided that Tsum Valley would be our destination this year. Please join me now on a photo essay of our trip.

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Here is our family: Andy, Indra (our guide), Meggie (me), Maddie, and Duncan. We are in Lho – the Ribang Monastery is behind us with Manaslu majestically framing the background. We used Parikrama Treks and Expeditions (which means “circumambulation of sacred places”), http://www.parikramatreks.com a Kathmandu based trekking company run by the affable Bal Kumar Basnet. We first met Kumar when he was our ‘sherpa’ for our trip in the Everest region to climb Island Peak back in 1991 (before kids). Since then he has moved on to own his own successful trekking company – a Nepalese success story you might say, and an example of the economic benefits of trekking tourism to Nepal. We trekked again with Kumar’s company in 2009 when we trekked the Everest region with our children, and so it was an easy choice for us to rely on Kumar again. We knew we would be in good hands.

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A map of our route, starting from Arughat Bazar.  In the Tsum Valley (the valley that heads to the top right of the map) we will go only as far as Mu Gompa which is just before Dupchet on the map. Once back on the Manaslu Circuit, we would go as far as Sama (also called Samagaon) before helicoptering out. Our itinerary was as follows:

Day 1:  Arughat Bazar to Soti Khola

Day 2: Soti Khola to Machha Khola

Day 3: Machha Khola to Jagat

Day 4: Jagat to Lokpa

Day 5: Lokpa to Domje

Day 6: Domje to Lamagaon

Day 7: rest day in Lamagaon

Day 8: Lamagaon to Mu Gompa

Day 9: Mu Gompa to Domje

Day 10: Domje to Nyak

Day 11: Nyak to Bihi Phedi (short day)

Day 12: Bihi Phedi to Ghap (short day)

Day 13: Ghap to Lho

Day 14: Lho to Samagaon

Day 15: day in Samagaon

Day 16: Helicopter out in the am

KTM pollution over Boudhanath

We arrived in Kathmandu (KTM) May 2, 2014. Kathmandhu is a city struggling with a burgeoning population, poverty, pollution, and poor infrastructure. But it is a city steeped in history, culture, and kindness, in a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells that delight (and sometimes overwhelm) the senses. This picture, with the Boudhanath stupa, was taken by helicopter as we flew back into KTM after the trek.

Staying at the infamous KTM Guesthouse in central Thamel (ground zero for over 50 years for trekkers and climbers), we spent the next couple days touring Patan’s ancient Durbur Square temples, Swayambhunath stupa's cheeky monkeys, and of course wandering the narrow streets of Thamel dodging touts, motorbikes and rickshaws, to make last minute trekking purchases - everything from knock-off North Face duffles to the all critical supply of toilet paper.

Staying at the infamous KTM Guesthouse in central Thamel (ground zero for over 50 years for trekkers and climbers), we spent the next couple days touring Patan’s ancient Durbur Square temples, Swayambhunath stupa’s cheeky monkeys, and of course wandering the narrow streets of Thamel dodging touts, motorbikes and rickshaws, to make last minute trekking purchases – everything from knock-off North Face duffles to the all critical supply of toilet paper. At the end of the journey, we stayed a few more days, this time near the Buddhist mecca of Boudhanath at the very charming and relaxing Shambling hotel. This gave us easy access to both Boudhanath and Pashupatinath. For more info on the Kathmandu portion of our trip go to:

 http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/hamiltonfamily/10/1401539645/tpod.html

Rickshaws in the rain waiting for some business

Rickshaws in the rain waiting for some business.

A holy sadhu in KTM Durbar square. A donation for a blessing (and photo op).

A holy sadhu in KTM Durbar square. A donation for a blessing (and photo op).

The great stupa of Boudhanath  with its all seeing eyes.

The great stupa of Boudhanath with its all seeing eyes.

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Boudhanath - a place for pilgrims, monks, Tibetans and tourists alike.

Boudhanath – a place for pilgrims, monks, Tibetans and tourists alike.

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A place for meditation.

View of Patan's Durbar square temples.

View of Patan’s Durbar square temples.

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Our tour guides to Patan were Kumar’s delightful children. They have reaped the benefits of their fathers hard work in the tourism industry – a good education, modern attitudes, and a bright future. They are the future generation of Nepal.

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Participating in the ritual.

Stupa in Pashupatinath

Stupa in Patan

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Wandering the back streets of Patan.

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A prayer wheel is a cylindrical wheel on a spindle. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers.

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Ganesha, the Hindu lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is also worshipped as the god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth.

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Graffiti doesn’t respect the Hindu gods apparently.

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Shopping for souvenirs in Boudhanath.

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A street seller – one of many in Kathmandu that sell Mentos mints. I wonder what her daily income is?

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I believe this is Parvati, the wife of Shiva.

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Family gathering for a celebration picnic at the temple in Patan.

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Maddie – looking out the palace window in Patan, just like ‘kumari’ the young princess in Nepal who is said to look outside her deteriorating palace window in Durbar Square. Kumari is usually a prepubescent girl that is chosen to be worshipped. She represents the divine female energy. Her life does not sound very envious – she can’t leave the palace except on ceremonial duties. Outside the palace she must be carried everywhere as her feet can’t touch the ground.

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A narrow, busy shopping lane in the heart of the city near Durbar Square.

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Old meets new – I love the contrast of a young man sitting in an ancient temple alcove in Patan listening to music on his smart phone.

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These women were having a family picnic as part of a ceremony in one of the temple complexes in Patan.

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Andy, receiving a blessing and tikka – a mixture of abir, a red powder, yoghurt, and grains of rice. The most common tikka is red powder applied with the thumb, in a single upward stroke. The tikka symbolizes the third eye, or mind’s eye, associated with many Hindu gods and the idea of meditation and spiritual enlightenment.

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Navigating the crowded streets of Kathmandu can lead to sensory overload if you don’t take frequent breaks. Fortunately, there are plenty of oases – lovely coffee shops and restaurants, temples with stairs to sit and watch the crowds go by, and rickshaws to return home when weary.

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Swayambhunath, the monkey temple, is a long hike or short taxi ride away from Thamel. A long set of stairs greets you, lined by vendors, cheeky monkeys, and mothers with babies in arms seeking a donation of money (donating to people begging on the streets is generally dissuaded by those who understand the complexities of the impact this has on the Nepalese).

Monkey hanging about the temple.

Monkey hanging about his temple.

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At the top – a large stupa surrounded by shrines and temples.

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Maroon robed monk – I wonder what music he’s playing as he makes his offerings.

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The smoggy view of Kathmandu from the top of Swayambhunath.

The burning ghats of Pashupatinath on the sacred Bagmati river.

Pashupatinath is one of Nepal’s most important Hindu temples sits on the sacred Bagmati river. At this time of year it is little more than a few highly polluted puddles.  Sadhus and devotees of Shiva flock to Pashupatinath from across the subcontinent and many Nepalis choose to be cremated on the banks of the holy river.

Pashupatinath is one of Nepal's most important Hindu temples. It sits on the banks of the holy Bagmati River, which at this time of year is little more  than a few highly polluted puddles

The temple is surrounded by a bustling market of religious stalls selling marigolds, prasad (offerings), incense, rudraksha beads, conch shells, pictures of Hindu deities and temples, tika powder in rainbow colours, glass lingams, models of Mt Meru and other essential religious paraphernalia.

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Can’t get enough picture of tika powder – don’t you love it?

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A Sadhu hanging out in Pashupatinath.

Sadhus hanging out in Pashupatinath – more mutual benefits (I get photo op, you get $). I’m sure someone will point out the downside to this economic/cultural exchange, but it sure felt better than sneaking a picture. At least there was an honest acknowledgment of our individual desires.

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Sorry – you can’t have too many picture of these colourful men!

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The children patiently waiting for what in the end was a 4 hour carpet buying spree in Patan.

Packing up the jeep in the Kathmandu Guesthouse courtyard. We think this is the classic place to stay prior to a trek - it is in the midst of Thamel so stocking up on last minute items you might need is easy. Knock off North Face gear anyone?

Now mostly recovered from jet lag after 2 days in Kathmandu (a couple days are  highly recommended  to catch your breath before beginning your trek), Packing up the jeep in the Kathmandu Guesthouse courtyard. This is the classic place to stay prior to a trek. It is infamous and has been a  favourite of climbers and trekkers since the early days – it is in the midst of Thamel so stocking up on last minute items you might need is easy. Knock off North Face gear anyone? Its’ garden courtyard is a welcome oasis from the cacophony of the narrow streets. PS. Note the box of eggs on the ground – they sat cradled on Rabyn (the assistant guide’s) lap,  for the whole jeep trip – he nursed them over the potholes.

By private jeep, it took about 5 1/2 hours to get to Arughat. This was a stop in Dhading, the 1/2 point. Till now, we had traveled on winding but paved roads, now we would turn off onto a dirt road that snaked it’s way up, down and around the hills. It took 3 hours to travel 30 kms. That’s right – 10 km an hour.

One way to get to Arughat is by bus. We passed several along the way. It wouldn’t be my choice – I prefer my comfort too much, and it takes about 7 hours, but it would certainly be cheaper and more of an adventure! That is, if you can stand looking down the side of a steep ravine as the bus navigates a hairpin turn. A hint though – I’d have gravol available if you are at all prone to motion sickness.

On the road. An early glimpse of workers carrying their harvest in the straw basket on their back

On the road. An early glimpse of workers carrying their harvest in the straw baskets on their back.

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Arughat Teahouse. This was fairly new and attempted (with some success) the modern convenience of an attached bathroom with a flush toilet. It rained cats and dogs (or yaks and dogs?) that night with a dramatic thunderstorm – we were happy not to be camping yet!

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Arughat, is at the trailhead and is the largest town in the region. It has a few shops with a smattering of trekking equipment (the thunderstorm the night before prompted us to pick up umbrellas and day pack rain covers). I wouldn’t count on finding anything you really need here though – best to do that in Kathmandu (even toilet paper was tricky finding – at the last minute we worried we hadn’t packed enough of the precious item. Try miming toilet paper to a shop keeper 🙂

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Soaking up the atmosphere – there isn’t much action in this photo, but people had been passing by back and forth. Sometimes it is nice to just sit and wait for life to unfold in front of you when on a journey.

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This is the Budhi Gandhi ‘general’ hospital in Arughat. Not much more than a store front with a few clinic supplies visible. This is no place to get seriously ill unless you can get to Pokhara or Kathmandu. Make sure you have travel insurance that will pay for a helicopter! We passed a young man in obvious distress 1/2 way up the trail a few days later. He was being carried by a few friends who had been travelling several days already and were a few more days away from this hospital. Sadly, I don’t think he was going to get the care he needed here. He was having seizures and had been for a week already and was unconscious.

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Father and son. We saw farmers using these wooden plows pulled by a cow throughout the valley.

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These kids were being led in a long, boisterous  line through the village. Lots of waves, smiles and Namaste.

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The school kids were for the most part very smart in their various uniforms. I don’t know how their mothers keep them clean (well, I do know – daily clothes washing at the communal tap).

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And the trek begins! It has stopped raining now, and it is quite warm – something that we expected in the lower elevations but later on we were surprised by how warm it continued to be. (our heavy down jackets, ski gloves, gortex pants, wooly hats and -30 degree down sleeping bags were not really needed. But one never knows in the mountains so you need to be prepared!)

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Looking across at Arughat after crossing the bridge that separates the town in two. We will be following the Budhi Gandaki for the next 4 days until we veer right into the Tsum Valley.

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Todays’s trek is easy. The trail is wide and flat. It is actually a jeep/bus track now that goes all the way to Soti Bazzar. You can take the bus if you want but we found this day a perfect warm up day and we passed through some lovely villages, rice paddies, and waterfalls (replenished by last night’s rain).

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Winnowing – sifting out the grain from chaff.

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Peering from the doorway with a smile

A stop to register at the local police station.

A quick stop to register at the local police station and we were on our way again.

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Be prepared for the early morning rooster wake up call (if you haven’t been already woken by the barking dogs).

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No washer/dryers here – hand washed and hung to dry.

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Writing on a precipice! Look carefully – see that rock in the bottom R corner? The one holding up the rock she is sitting on? She is basically sitting over a cliff – the river 100 feet below!

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Our first lunch stop. While we had the cooking crew, lunch was always hot. They cooked breakfast, raced ahead to our lunch stop, set up and cooked lunch, raced ahead to camp (or tea house), set up and cooked dinner. The food was always amazing, and they took great care to ensure it was hygienically prepared (the proof was we didn’t get sick until we moved on to teahouse food – more on that later).

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I’m not sure if this is Arkhet or Kokhetar, but is typical of the villages we passed along the way.

More giggling school boys. Why is it that the girls never ham it up for a photo op?

More giggling school boys. Why is it that the girls rarely ham it up for a photo op?

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Our first night. We stayed at the ABC Guest House. There were only a few other buildings at the trail head. A little rough around the edges but not bad. Hint: avoid the room with the ensuite bathroom – the wafting aroma from the loo during the night required avoidance measures including breathing through a bandana and the resourceful strategy of applying deodorant under the nose.

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This is as far as the road goes. Time for the bus to turn around for the bumpy ride back down the valley.

The way small stones are made to create cement. Someone hammers each larger stone. The trick to not pounding your fingers is to use an old flip flop with a whole in it to steady the rock. We saw people sitting on top of a pile of gravel that surely must of taken weeks, if not months to create.

How small stones are made to create cement. Someone hammers each larger stone. The trick to not pounding your fingers is to use an old flip flop with a hole in it to steady the rock. We saw people sitting on top of a pile of gravel that surely must of taken weeks, if not months to create.

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Rest stop for the cooking crew and us along the way – under the watchful eye of the women above.

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The guide book says “The trails today are some of the most exposed in the Himalaya. If the idea of walking a tightrope hundreds of feet above a raging river torrent scares you, do the Annapurna Circuit instead!” In fact, many stretches of trail were narrow, high and clinging to the side of the deep gorge. Don’t loose your balance on these stretches! The trail in this picture is actually pretty good – trust me, I didn’t stop to take a picture on the really scary bits.

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Family photo op – valley view.

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Babies were carried in all different ways – here is an older child in a basket usually used to carry goods.

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Indra our guide coming into Machha kola behind a mule train (not ours). We saw a lot of mule trains on the trail. Apparently mules were introduced only recently as pack animals.

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Grinding the grain by hand with a large stone. We did see several mills powered by small streams along the way.

Women gathered about having a neighbourly chat in Machha Khola. They were sitting on the steps of our tea house. We brought a polaroid camera to take pictures and give to people as many do not have a lot of pictures of themselves. (They may have digital pictures on their cell phone though), but I suspect there are few colour printers in this valley). These ladies loved their pics!

Women gathered about having a neighbourly chat in Machha Khola. They were sitting on the steps of our tea house. We brought a polaroid camera to take pictures and give to people as many do not have a lot of pictures of themselves. (They may have digital pictures on their cell phone though, but I suspect there are few colour printers in this valley). These ladies loved their pics!

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Macha Kola water tap - where community living is exemplified! Brush your teeth, wash your clothes, clean your dinner dishes, bathe your baby. It all happens here on the main street.

Macha Kola water tap – where community living is exemplified! Brush your teeth, wash your clothes, clean your dinner dishes, bathe your baby, all the while chatting with your neighbours. It all happens here on the main street. While I wouldn’t trade my comforts at home for this, it does make you realize just how isolated we live our daily lives.

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Tatopani means ‘hot water’ – that is why you have a few Tatopani villages in the area (e.g. there is one on the Annapurna circuit too) – they are situated by hot springs. The water was hot, which might be refreshing on a cold day but not needed in this heat.

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Rest stop in Tatopani outside a small shop. Notice the lovely paving stones.

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Breastfeeding promotion by USAid.

Baby carrying Nepal style - baskets

Baby carrying Nepal style – baskets

and slings

and slings

Sneak peak

Sneak peak

A long mule train crosses the bridge after Dovan on the way to Jagat. Don't you love the decoration?

A long mule train crosses the bridge after Dovan on the way to Jagat.

Don't you love the decoration?

Don’t you love the decoration?

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After being on a high trail with many landslips, and a raging river tumbling down amongst large boulders, once again the trail takes you down to the river that is now calmer and meandering.

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But then the trail takes you right back up again!

Don't get too comfortable!

Watch your back Bro!

This is the official start of the Manaslu Conservation Area

This is the official start of the Manaslu Conservation Area

You pass under the welcoming gate

We passed under the welcoming gate on our way to Jagat.

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Looking back down the valley.

Jagat - a neat and clean village, the trail is paved with flagstones. There are several good teahouses - we even had a hot shower (warmed by an instant gas heater). This was a tease, as it was our last hot shower on the trail.

Jagat – a neat and clean village, the trail is paved with flagstones. There are several good teahouses – we even had a hot shower (warmed by an instant gas heater). This was a tease, as it was our last hot shower on the trail – well last shower of any kind.  From now on we make do with our precious supply of baby wipes.

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Morning ablutions – a bucket of clean water is all you need. Don’t be shy!

Loading up the mules after a good nights sleep in Jagat.

Loading up the mules after a good nights sleep in Jagat.

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You really do need to be careful to stay to the inside when passing a mule train on this trail. It is a long way down and mules aren’t known for caring about how much room you have when they pass.

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Finally more than just a glimpse of the mountains! I think this is Shringi Himal and the fine fluting of Langju Himal that guard the entrance to the Tsum valley.

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Collecting wood in the little village of Ghatte. There is a water powered mill here to grind the corn.

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This suspension bridge is billed as one of the longest over the Budhi Gandaki river. From here it is a long climb up to Philim.

A few times, the trail comes  down to the river (then right back up again!). We found that there was much more ascent and descent on this trek than in the Solo Khumbu. Take care of your knees and use a pole if you are prone to knee pain on descent.

A few times, the trail comes down to the river (then right back up again!). We found that there was much more ascent and descent on this trek than in the Solo Khumbu. Take care of your knees and use a pole if you are prone to knee pain on descent (like me).

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Philim is a large (it’s all relative) and prosperous village with several good looking tea houses if this is your overnight spot. It is surrounded by swaying fields of wheat or barley.

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We weren’t stopping overnight, but this was our lovely lunch spot in Philim, looking west over the valley. The teahouse here looked great too – apparently good Wifi could be had (but we resisted). Lunch breaks were usually about 1 ½ long while we had our kitchen crew with us (a bit long for us most of the time but necessary for the kitchen staff to set up and cook the meal. If you are teahouse trekking, then you would be able to have shorter lunch stops).

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Outside of Phlim the trail slowly winds its way high on the east side of the valley. We passed this group of farmers tending to their fields. One woman started shouting, running and throwing rocks. I hoped it wasn’t a mule (the poor mules have a lot of rocks thrown at them) but it turned out she was chasing after a group of nuisance monkeys.

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Talking to kids along the trail.

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Time to veer right towards the lower Tsum Valley and leave the main Manaslu circuit behind for the next week.

Up the gentle path to Lokpa. Shade and pine needles underfoot make this a pleasant part of the trail.

The gentle path to Lokpa. Shade and pine needles underfoot make this a pleasant part of the trail.

Breakfast at Lopka - one quick look in the sole teahouse confirmed our decision to camp. The village of Lopka is actually higher above the trail - we didn't explore it (We had definitely had enough trekking for the day). The camp site wasn't the best either, but once you are tucked into your little yellow dome tent you don't care - unless you have to navigate through the cow pasture to the outhouse in the dark

Breakfast at Lopka – one quick look in the sole teahouse had confirmed our decision to camp. (2 other trekkers had no choice and described the mouse/rat droppings falling from the ceiling in the night – their advice “don’t sleep on your back with an open mouth!). The village of Lopka is actually higher above the trail – we didn’t explore it as we had definitely had enough trekking for the day. The camp site wasn’t the best either, but once you are tucked into your little yellow dome tent you don’t care – unless you have to navigate through the cow pasture to the outhouse in the dark. But then that is part of the adventure.

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Wake up call was 0630 sharp. ‘Tea please’ called Rabin from outside the tent.

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Morning light in Lopka – looking up the valley towards Tsum.

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Ahhhh, there are mountains here thinks Andy. We have only had glimpses so far of distant fluted snow covered peaks since we have mostly been deep in the river gorge.

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We had lunch in Chumling. Dal Bhat anyone?

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Coming out of the steep river gorge and more high treacherous trail – almost routine now – to a widening valley with room for agriculture.

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A night in Domje – we stayed in a farmer’s dirt field.

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Still in good humor despite the early hour.

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It’s great to travel with your sibling.

These little munchkins spent their time watching us very curiously as we went about our business in camp.

These little munchkins spent their time watching us very curiously as we went about our business in camp. You see older children responsible for carrying their young sibling in a baby wrap a lot.

Mama and middle child

Mama and middle child

Morning ritual - sterilizing water for our water bottles with the Steripen (uses UV light to sterilize water)

Morning ritual – Maddie’s turn to sterilize the water for our water bottles with the Steripen (uses UV light to sterilize water)

A glimpse in the kitchen tent. That is Puri doing the dishes outside.

A glimpse in the kitchen tent. That is Puri doing the dishes outside.

Washing at the family tap.

Washing at the family tap.

Chortens above Gho as we approach Chhokang Paro for lunch.

Chortens above Gho as we approach Chhokang Paro for lunch.

We are in Mani stone country now. Sure they are elsewhere in the surrounding valleys. But now they are everywhere! Mani stones are carved with Buddhist mantras are are usually piled rather haphazardly in long walls. You should always keep these walls on your right. Which is fine when you aren't tired, but sometimes this required a little extra effort that you just don't have. So I guiltily report that we didn't always keep to the right.

We are in Mani stone country now. Sure they are elsewhere in the surrounding valleys, but now they are everywhere! Mani stones are carved with Buddhist mantras and are usually piled rather haphazardly in long walls. You should always keep these walls on your right. Which is fine when you aren’t tired, but sometimes this requires a little extra effort that you just don’t have. So I guiltily report that we didn’t always keep to the right.

Lunch at Chhokang Paro. This looks like a prosperous village with dozens of chortens (a chorten is a small stupa). The teahouse was undergoing construction for a new addition. There was evidence of new teahouses and teahouse expansion throughout the valley.

Lunch at Chhokang Paro. This looks like a prosperous village with dozens of chortens (a chorten is a small stupa). The teahouse was undergoing construction for a new addition. There was evidence of new teahouses and teahouse expansion throughout the valley -all evidence that the Tsum is gearing up to welcome more trekkers.

Our kitchen crew were cooking outside on the patio but this is a glimpse into the family/teahouse kitchen.

Our kitchen crew were cooking outside on the patio but this is a glimpse into the family/teahouse kitchen.

Lunch in the teahouse.

Lunch in the teahouse. Now we are definitely in Buddhist territory with this traditional dining room.

Grandma helping with spinning the wool. Her daughter (daughter-in-law) was spinning in the shadows next to her.

Grandma helping with spinning the wool. A younger woman was spinning in the shadows next to her.

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A very long mani wall.

and more chortens

and more chortens

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This is the area where the road building has begun. In places it is very close to the mani stones and chortens. At present, there is only about a 1 (or maybe a couple km) stretch that starts and ends nowhere obvious. It is understandable that there is concern expressed by many about the physical impact of the road on these important cultural and spiritual monuments. Forget the more complicated social arguments about the positive and negative influences on culture, community, economy, and education. Honestly though, it is hard to understand where this road is going. The Chinese are supposed to be bringing the road to the pass on the Tibet side. Nepal would need to build the road from the Tsum valley northwards. The valley gorge is just too narrow and steep for the road to go further south so communication with the rest of Nepal seems impossible. So far, the trail bypasses the road so it doesn’t yet impact the trekking experience.

Valley view

Time for a rest to soak up the view.

 

We have now entered the upper Tsum Valley. It is wider (and thankfully flatter), so the trail takes you through fields of wheat, buckwheat, mustard and potato.

We have now entered the upper Tsum Valley. It is wider (and thankfully flatter), so the trail takes you through fields of wheat, buckwheat, mustard and potato.

A see of verdant green.

Looking back from where we came –  sea of verdant green.

A wonderful camping spot in Lamagoan. So good we took a rest day here.

A wonderful camping spot in Lamagoan. So good we took a rest day here. That is why we prefer to trek as a private group and not with a larger group. You can decide your own schedule – stay longer or move faster as you please.

Breakfast at sunrise. It is cold until the sun creeps over the mountains.

Breakfast at sunrise. It is cold until the sun creeps over the mountains.

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Time for a little R & R – Reading…

A little morning yoga...

a little morning yoga…

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and some sunshine.

Our favorite outhouse. Most outhouses we encountered now have porcelain squats. All had either a tap or a bucket with water to flush. Toilet paper is a western concept so bring your own! Curiously (and rather inconveniently I might add) even formal teahouses didn't have anywhere to deposit used TP. This required some forward thinking about the management of said TP until you could discretely exit the outhouse and deposit it in the nearest appropriate garbage.

Our favorite outhouse. Most outhouses we encountered now have porcelain squats. All had either a tap or a bucket with water to flush. Toilet paper is a western concept so bring your own! Curiously (and rather inconveniently I might add) even formal teahouses didn’t have anywhere to deposit used TP. This required some forward thinking about the management of said TP until you could discretely exit the outhouse and deposit it in the nearest appropriate garbage. It crossed my mind that a roll of biodegradable doggy bags might have been helpful. But then that might be over thinking this.

The winning view from the outhouse. Bonus points for being able to see yaks, mountain peaks and a monastery while you squat.

The winning view from the outhouse. Bonus points for being able to see yaks, mountain peaks and a monastery while you squatted.

We had time to really engage with these 2 little ones. A game of peekaboo broke the ice.

We had time to really engage with these 2 little ones. A game of peekaboo broke the ice.

Maddie was their favorite!

Maddie was their favorite!

Sharing an apple with our mules. Apples are grown in the valley and the trees were in blossom.

Sharing an apple with our mules. Apples are grown in the valley – the trees were in blossom in May.

 

Andy - with his self styled ghutra.

Andy – with his self styled ghutra.

We visited Milrepa's Cave - This friendly local is the 'keeper of the key'.

Milarepa’s Cave is nearby and worth a side trip. This affable local is the ‘keeper of the key’.

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The path to Milarepa’s cave zig zags up the hillside past a cluster of chortens and on to the stone chapel built around the cave entrance. Milarepa was a great Tibetan Buddhist philosopher – legend has it that he spent time meditating in this cave, leaving an impression of his footprint forever in stone

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Milarepa’s footprint

Mani walls and electricity. This valley has a several small hydroelectric power plants so is well supplied with electricity - though that usually meant just a single or couple bare light bulbs in the main room and a single plug for charging or plugging in an electrical appliance.

Mani walls and electricity. This valley has a several small hydroelectric power plants so is well supplied with electricity – though that usually meant just a single or couple bare light bulbs in the main room and a single plug for charging or plugging in an electrical appliance.

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Heading up the valley towards Nile and Chhule.

Yak or

Dzopa (a cross between a yak and a cow).

Choren view

Chorten view

We passed this little fellow on the trail. What a lovely 'Namaste'.

We passed this little fellow on the trail. What a lovely ‘Namaste’.

These small irises decorated the trailside (along with the ubiquitous stinging nettles that were further down on the trail. Warning re the nettles: Make sure you avoid them on any trailside diversions to answer natures call!

These small irises decorated the trailside, along with the ubiquitous stinging nettles. Warning re the nettles: Make sure you avoid them on any trailside diversions to answer natures call!

It is a fairly gentle climb up to Mu Gompa. We were stuck behind a mule train.

It is a fairly gentle climb up to Mu Gompa. We were stuck behind a mule train heading towards Tibet.

Riders passing us on the trail. There were many locals coming and going along the trail even this far north towards Tibet. Besides still being a major trading route, many were in search of the precious Yarsagumba, that can be picked in May and June. We didn't actually have a chance to see this funny little ½ plant ½ animal. It is only found between 4000-4500 meters and is a dead caterpillar that has been infected with spores. Sought after as a Chinese medicine, it can bring in as much as $60,000 per kilo.

Riders passing us on the trail. There were many locals coming and going along the trail even this far north towards Tibet. Besides still being a major trading route, many were in search of the precious Yarsagumba, that can be picked in May and June. We didn’t actually have a chance to see this funny little ½ plant ½ animal. It is only found between 4000-4500 meters and is a dead caterpillar that has been infected with spores. Sought after as a Chinese medicine, it can bring in as much as $60,000 per kilo.

View of our campground from Mu Gompa.

View of our campground from Mu Gompa. You can see the little yellow tents in the distance, and the helipad in the foreground.

Looking back down the Tsum Valley.

Looking back down the Tsum Valley.

Checking our O2 saturation  for fun, now that we are at 3700 meters (still relatively low).

Checking our O2 saturation for fun, now that we are at 3700 meters (still relatively low).

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A chilly but sunny breakfast in Mu Gompa. You can just see the outer buildings of the monastery higher on the hill.

A visit to the Mu Gompa monastery. There were just a few monks present - they were in the middle of their meditation ceremony when we arrived, but this fellow was happy to show us around briefly.

A visit to the 100 year old Mu Gompa monastery (at 3700 meters it is the highest settlement in the Tsum). There were just a few monks present (at one time there were as many as 500) – they were in the middle of their meditation ceremony when we arrived, but this fellow was happy to show us around briefly. It seemed like a rather desolate place, but I guess that is the whole purpose…

Mu Gompa monastery

Mu Gompa monastery

Mu Gompa

Mu Gompa painted doors and tea time

Heading back down the valley

Heading back down the valley

Architectural details

Architectural details

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Red door in the Tsum Valley

Drying dung for cooking fuel.

Drying dung for cooking fuel.

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On the way down the valley, we stopped at the Rachen Gompa nunnery. This is a large complex in the Tsum Valley, established in 1905. It houses approximately 90 nuns. (this view if from Milarepa’s cave from across the valley).

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Grazing yaks, naks and dzopa’s surround the nunnery. PS, don’t be fooled if you are asked if you want to taste yak cheese! Yaks are male, naks are female 🙂

Rachen Gompa monastery.

We could hear the sound of a class reciting lines wafting from one of the rooms.

Rachen Gompa door detail

Rachen Gompa door detail

Tea time back at Lamagoan.

Tea time back at Lamagoan.

Our little friend kept us company. He is sitting in the 'fathers chair', the coveted spot next to the cooking stove saved for the head of the house.

Our little friend kept us company. He is sitting in the ‘fathers chair’, the coveted spot next to the cooking stove saved for the head of the house.

It was a long day trek down from Mu Gompa to Domje. The next day we descended all the way to the first teahouse on the Manaslu circuit. My knees were knocked!

It was a long day trek down from Mu Gompa to Domje. The next day we descended all the way to the first teahouse on the Manaslu circuit. Here we are heading down through the narrow gorge heading towards Lopka.

Only a Brit would look this good (silly?) with an umbrella.

Only a Brit would look this good (silly?) with an umbrella.

All the way down to rejoin the Manaslu circuit. My knees were knackered! Thank goodness for Ibuprofen.

All the way down to rejoin the Manaslu circuit. My knees were knackered! Thank goodness for Ibuprofen.

We stayed near Nyak. This is where we would say goodbye to our cooking crew and tents and stay at teahouses from now on.

We stayed near Nyak, back on the Manaslu circuit. This is where we would say goodbye to our cooking crew and tents and stay at teahouses from now on. A heard of goats took over the trail as we were settling in.

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Eating cake by head torch – a celebration as we were parting ways with our cooking crew now. At this point we had run out of our hot chilli sauce and instant Starbucks coffee – both had added to our daily pleasures.

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Morning tea – our tents were pitched in the middle of this field of wild marijuana.

Our camping spot was particularly captured our kids interest!

The flora particularly captured our kids interest!

Definitely worth a Facebook post! I warned them - no souvenirs!

Definitely worth a Facebook post! I warned them – no souvenirs 🙂 We had to get through several airport security checks before we got home!

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This is how logs are cut when you don’ have a chainsaw.

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On the trailside just before Deng.

Lunch stop at Deng. A long wait for warm tea, apple fritters and momos

Lunch stop at Deng. A long wait for warm tea, apple fritters and pancakes.

On towards Deng for lunch.  Stairs were a constant companion on this trail and  throughout the trek. I don't know which is more difficult, going up or going down. You do lots of both!

On towards Bihi Phedi. Stairs were a constant companion on this trail and throughout the trek. I don’t know which is more difficult, going up or going down. You do lots of both!

This was the only rather precarious ladder we encountered. We were definitely not on the mule track, despite how fleet footed they are!

This was the only rather precarious ladder we encountered. We were definitely not on the mule track, despite how fleet footed these pack animals are they wouldn’t have made it up this!

Tired mule waiting for lunch

Tired mule waiting for his lunch (he came by a different path).

Then on to Bihi Phedi. This was a short day - and we immediately wondered why we had stopped here (and lamented the fact that we no longer had our cooking crew and tents).

Then on to Bihi Phedi. This was a very short day – and we immediately wondered why we had stopped here. (we suspect our guide and porters had over-imbided the night before celebrating the parting of ways with the cooking crew 🙂 Never mind. A couple newer lodges were closed so there was little choice but to stay at the sole lodge. Later, we would regret not having pushed on to Gap.

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Manaslu Hotel and Lodge (has seen better days). Really, the rooms were not so bad. It was the state of the kitchen and cleanliness that was a bit of a worry. But if we hadn’t stayed here, we would have missed an interesting encounter the evening before, with a young nurse who was the sister of the lodge owner . She was born in Bihi Phedi but as a young girl was sent to school in Kathmandu. She didn’t return to see her family again for 13 years! After graduating from high school, she trained to be a nurse and was a recent grad. She was the only health care worker in the immediate area and shared stories of the situations she encountered that tested her skills and limited resources. It was an eye opener for us (we are both in health care). Even though she was from the village and spoke the local language, she still struggled with gaining the trust of the community. Encouraging vaccinations, preventative healthcare, prenatal and birth care was discouraging. She might be called to a birth where the woman had already been labouring for days only to find an obstructed labour with a dead baby and so all she could do was call for a helicopter to get the woman to Kathmandu to save her life. Surprisingly, her access to helicopter transfer to Kathmandu was fairly available. When asked what she would wish for to help make her job easier, we were surprised to hear her say a laptop. Apparently when they do health teaching in the villages, few people turn up because they are bored with just listening to a health worker talk with only a poster as visual prop. But show a movie, or powerpoint and you get a full room. Makes sense. Bihi Phedi was soon to get electricity – you could see the power lines coming up from the river far below.

 

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Dawn – a porridge breakfast. And soon after Andy succumbed to a belly ache and accompanying gastrointestinal events

Teahouse children

Teahouse children – big sister helping

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Hanging out on the stoop waiting for breakfast.

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Andy was feeling like crap at this point…not enjoying the view.

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Andy made it as far as Ghap (with a few unscheduled detours off the side of the trail), maybe an hour or so away. We decided to spend the rest of the day and night here at this pleasant lodge to give Andy (with the Cipro on board) time to recover. The lodge was clean, the food was good and the owners friendly. You can just see a dark figure in the field behind the lodge. This elderly woman spent all day into dusk stooped over, hand hoeing the field with nary a break.

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Time to organize the back packs, do a washing, read, sit in the sunshine

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A fairly typical room – thin plywood walls, wood floor, hard mattress with a sheet over top (in a good quality lodge like this the sheet actually looked clean). Sometimes a bare light bulb. Look out the window at an amazing Himalayan view. Really, what more do you need? PS – the coke was an unusual treat today. Though available on this portion of the trail in the larger tea houses, we tried to avoid creating the ensuing waste. No blue recycling bins in a remote area like this

Mani artwork

Mani artwork on the trail to Lh0.

The trail up towards Lho was a bit muddy in places.

The trail up towards Lho was a bit muddy in places.

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Lunch stop in Namrung. Silly family – must be the altitude…

Duncan deciding if he could make  living as a porter. The decision was NO.

Duncan deciding if he could make a living as a porter. Not likely. The porters work so hard. It is important to travel with a reputable trekking company that abides by the guidelines set out by the International Porter Protection Group.

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After lunch in Namrung – looking across the valley the next village looks enticingly close (except one has to go down to the the bridge and then back up the other side first!).

Stopping for a very refreshing break in a crystal clear stream.

Stopping for a very refreshing break in a crystal clear stream. We would stop along the way at streams like these to refill our water bottles. A quick stir with the Steripen and we had wonderful safe drinking water.

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This may be Limi across the valley – we couldn’t help but feel like we had been transported back in time to medieval England. The stone houses, stalls for animals on the ground floor, plowing the field with a wooden plow and cow, walking as the major method of transportation, primitive sources of running water, outhouses…I thought a knight might come around the corner at any minute.

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Sho – stone walls and red door.

Kani gate on the way to Lho.

A particularly beautiful Kani gate (welcoming entrance to a village) on the way to Lho.

Don't forget to look up when you pass through the gate!

Don’t forget to look up when you pass through the gate!

 

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Lho

Lho – a beautiful bustling rustic village with Manaslu as a dramatic backdrop (you can’t see it here). We stayed the night in Lho so that we could experience the sunset and sunrise which are particularly beautiful here with the great views of Manaslu and surrounding peaks. Lho has several lodges that have catered to trekkers and mountaineers over the years. Duncan enjoyed his first deep fried mars bar of the trip. Yes, you heard that right – a delicacy amongst some trekkers.

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The Lho Riban Monastery on the hill just past Lho. The twin peaks of Manaslu are in the background.

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Lho with monastery and mountain views.

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On the way up to visit the monastery, we just had to pull out the banner for Parikrama Trekking for a photo op!

The colorful Lho Ribang Monastery gate with Manaslu peaking out above us.

The colorful Lho Ribang Monastery gate with Manaslu peaking out above us.

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Many novice child monks are in residence at the Ribang Monastery. They were scattered about the grounds – the little ones boisterously playing  like any kids at recess. The monks apparently come from all over Nepal to attend the school.

Lho Ribang Monastery door detail.

Lho Ribang Monastery door detail.

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Shyala – a lovely village to stop for tea. The views of Ngadi Chuli dominate the skyline.

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There were several newly constructed tea houses here.

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Mountain view – you can see the power lines here, a sign of modernity for the village, that otherwise remains steeped in simpler ways of life.

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Desending into Samagaon past the Kani gate – with Manaslu in the background.

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I’ve read trekkers deriding the proliferation of the blue corrugated tin roofs, seeing them as polluting the natural visual landscape. Traditional roofs are mostly made of slate. No doubt there is an argument for both. Back at home, I can safely say that builders don’t always take into account the impact of building materials on the overall landscape.

Pretty alpine flowers dot the trailside.

Pretty alpine flowers dot the trailside.

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Traffic signs in Samagaon: “Please don’t ride the horse on the village road” It will be a while before there is also a ‘Don’t text and ride’ sign.

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Stupa’s, prayer wheels and mountain views in Samagaon.

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Samagaon – looking east down the valley. This is where the trail goes if you continue the circuit (which most trekkers would do) but this would be our final town.

A short walk away is the Birendra Tal, a glacial lake where ice blocks tumble into the lake.

A short walk away is the stunning Birendra Tal, a glacial lake where ice blocks tumble into the lake…

...and some may land on unsuspecting sisters

…and some may land on unsuspecting sisters!

A walk in Samagoan

A walk in Samagaon – no shortage of stones!

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It is a bustling village – the stream is its life force.

Local Samagoan spinning his prayer wheel.

Local Samagaon spinning his prayer wheel.

When in Rome!

Duncan getting his share of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’

Waiting for the helicopter

Waiting for the helicopter. I know it might seem extravagant to many of you, but we decided (at the start of the trip), in the interest of limited time, my knees, and the fact that 3 of us had never been in a helicopter (and what better place than a helicopter ride in the Himalayas!), that we would take this opportunity to fly out of the valley  in a ‘copter – rather than continuing on over the Larkya La pass and down to join the Annapurna trail in the Marsyangdi Valley to Besisahar. We were able to charter a helicopter for the 4 of us, plus Indra our guide, for not an unreasonable amount of money (all things considered).

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Now this sure saves the knees!

Now this sure saves the knees!

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Down the way we came – the fast way! We flew low above the Budhi Gandaki, with the ravine cliffs hugging us on either side.

Fuel stop in Jagat and a last chance photo op.

Fuel stop in Jagat and a last chance photo op. Now we headed to the valley entrance and then sped over the miles (and hours) of truck congested road that winds back to Kathmandu.

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A big thanks to our wonderful team! Indra, our guide.

A big thanks to our wonderful team! Indra, our conscientious guide.

Robyn, our assistant guide

Rabin, our assistant guide – We’ll always remember his morning greeting at the tent door “Tea please!”

Dilly, guide in training and porter

Dilli, guide in training and porter – we think he’ll go far. Keep working on your English Dilli – you are doing great! and keep     smiling 🙂

Kamal, best cook ever!

Kamal, best cook ever!

Mamata - Cooking crew

Mamata…

Pari - always smiling

and Pari – Cooking crew and always smiling wonderful, tough ladies.

Govinder, patient mule driver

Govinder, our patient mule driver

and of course, the 7 hard working mules on our team.  The End

and of course, the 7 hard working mules on our team. 

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Thank-you Nepal, we’ll be back!

Postscript: Now that we are home and have had a chance to reflect on our trek, here are a few thoughts:

  • The trek up the Budhi Gandhi Valley was beautiful. Lots of up and down along narrow trails clinging to the sides of cliffs. There were only glimpses of the mountains but that was compensated for by the culture in the lovely villages along the way. The Everest and Annapurna treks have more breathtaking ‘in your face’ 6,000-8,000 meter mountains. Of course, we didn’t go over the Larkya La pass which would be spectacular – and which most people would do.
  • The elevation overall is lower than the Everest region, where one (usually) flies into Lukla at 2800 meters, compared to the trail head at Arughat at 608 meters.
  • There is much more up and down on this trek than most Everest treks. Although if you go over 1 or 2 passes in Everest you will do a lot of ascent and descent, the standard route doesn’t take you over any passes so is much easier on the knees.
  • In sections, the trails are sketchy – honestly, if you are afraid of heights you might not like this trek. I never felt that on any of our Everest trekking adventures. But they are safe if you pay attention and take care. There are only a couple truly exposed stretches.
  • The mix of Hindu culture in the lower valley and Buddhist culture higher up is a lovely contrast – something you don’t experience in Everest.
  • Because of the lower elevation, it was a lot warmer than Everest at this same time of year – we were rarely cold and didn’t really need all the down and gortex we brought (but you still need to bring it ‘in case’)!
  • Overall, you can spend less time at higher elevation than on the Everest trek, even if you do the Larkya La pass. Of course, you can spend time at higher elevation here if you want to by taking the many side trips that are available along the way.
  • The villages are less set up for tourism – which is a nice change. The tea houses on the Manaslu circuit don’t dominate the village (there are a lot though, in a section just past Samagaon, and more are being built along the way). Certainly the idea of selling souvenirs to trekkers hasn’t occurred to them. While in Namche Bazzar in the Everest region, you can buy yak bells, prayer wheels, prayer flags, hand knitted gloves and hats (and a lot more), there was virtually nothing sold along the trail here. This is probably a good thing (this is why most of us are here – you can get that stuff in Kathmandu), but I am surprised that there isn’t some interest in boosting the local economy by selling replicas of mani stones (for example). I worry that the smaller – more portable stones along the trailside will find their way into unscrupulous trekkers backpacks. I guess it speaks volumes about the integrity of the trekkers so far, but certainly if the road becomes reality more and more people will find themselves in the area it may become a problem 😦
  • If you can at all manage it, a few days in Kathmandu before and after the trek are highly recommended. It is an amazing city and deserves at least 4 whole days (2 before, 2 after).
  • There may be advantages to going with a local guide who would be very familiar with his/her ‘home territory’ and neighboring villages. We met a couple woman trekkers who were traveling with a local guide from the Tsum Valley and they did share several stories of meeting and interacting a bit more with the locals than we did. But of course this would depend on the individual guide, and their knowledge outside of their immediate area may not be any different than a Kathmandu based guide who is very familiar with the area (as ours was).
  • See the additional resources page for good links to other websites.

After Nepal we were able to treat ourselves to some luxury in Singapore and downtime in the sun on Nikoi Island. To read more about this portion of the trip go to http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/hamiltonfamily/10/1401556882/tpod.html

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Ahhh, now it was time for some R&R – and shopping …

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Welcome to paradise! Nikoi is a private island in Indonesia 50 km from Singapore. Check it out at http://www.nikoi.com.

 

 THE END

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