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STRADDLED BETWEEN THE ANNAPURNA MOUNTAINS and the Langtang Valley lies the comparatively undiscovered Manaslu region. A simple lack of infrastructure and the mild inconvenience of Manaslu’s restricted-area status means the region has been off limits to all but the hardiest of Himalayan trekkers prepared to get kitted out with tents and one week’s supply of food. Because of this, Manaslu has avoided the “touristification” that the other well-known treks have been subjected to.
That may change now. Teahouse accommodation is available along the whole route; accompanied by a compulsory guide, anybody with the correct permits can complete the circuit. Here’s what I leaned while trekking the newest teahouse trail on the Himalayan block.
Butter tea is not as bad as it sounds.
This drink, a kind of savoury tea soup, is really quite nice! Sitting around a Tibetan stove, with the temperature dipping to minus 10 degrees celsius beyond the door, and slurping away at a few cups of tea with added butter and salt is surprisingly comforting.
It’s worth dragging yourself away from a steaming pot of butter tea to brave the cold night sky.
With zero light pollution in the high Himalayas, the night skies are spectacular. Here, the Milky Way rises over a large Hani gate in Samagaon village.
Roads are not what they seem, or, rather, aren't roads at all.
As a fully paid up passenger, you are entirely obliged to get out and push the bus when the "roads" fail in the delivery of their only purpose (i.e. to be passable).
The quieter the river, the further the drop.
Tracing the roaring Budhi Gandaki river gorge for the first three days, the trek follows high paths blasted into the gorge walls by the Nepalese army (some parts as recently as 2008). As a soul that likes to keep his feet firmly on the ground, I rapidly learned if I could not hear the river, I was way up high and needn’t bother checking where it had gone.
Keep to the wall side.
This is particularly important when the river can’t be heard. Horse caravans like this are many and often. Get on the wrong side of a fast moving caravan and one slight nudge from a pony could spell disaster. My guide let me know this has happened before.
The gorge keeps on giving.
I will never ever, ever get too familiar with stunning vistas. The Budhi Gandaki has one at every turn.
Binoculars are fun–for all the wrong reasons.
Children beg for pens or chocolates at every village; giving in to such requests is not really "helpful," however. It only encourages more begging, and is usually followed by the patter of little feet running away with their new found riches. Simple interactions are better. I found most village kids liked these binoculars, but truly loved them with astonishment when worn backward. There’s something inherently fun about self-induced tunnel vision, however old you are.
There will always be traffic, wherever you go.
Early December proved to be a kind of "rush hour" in the Himalayan agricultural calendar. We were often sharing the path with shepherds moving their stock to lower pastures for the winter months.
Trees are dying, and I am (partly) responsible.
The simple act of doing a Nepalese teahouse trek presents issues to the local environment. I found this patch of cleared forest at 3,500 meters on the outskirts of Lao, a stunning village in the shadow of 6,000-meter-plus mountains on all sides. This area of forest was cleared 30 years ago, and shows little sign of recovery. Every teahouse built and every fire burned that provides comfort to weary trekkers uses wood taken from the rare and fragile habitat that, ironically, we have all come to see.
What’s in a name?
One bleak illustration of the high infant mortality rate in the upper stretches of the Nubri Valley is the unwillingness of some families to name their children before their fifth birthday. Put simply, many children will not make it that far–20% will not live past their first year. Infection is common with many children sporting cuts such as this. Without access to medicine or clean water, and little knowledge about sanitation (open defecation is common practice in villages off the main trail), serious diseases abound. A cholera outbreak wiped out half a village in the valley two years ago.
It’s not all doom and gloom.
With sustainable and responsible trekking, the increasing popularity of the Manaslu Circuit will go a long way in improving the lives of the people that live here. More tourists mean more money, and, perhaps more importantly for the immediate future, an expectation for decent sanitary conditions. Tourists expect this, but it can also reduce the risk of disease.
A Hani gate means home.
The site of a Hani gate, such as this one outside Sho village, was a beacon to my weary legs. It meant that (relative) comfort was not far away.
The air gets thin up there.
Noticeably so. The push from Samdo over Larke La Pass to Bhimtang involves a 1,000-meter ascent, a 1,000-meter descent, a 14-hour day starting in the "wee small hours" and ending at dusk, and peaking at 5,150 meters. This level of exertion lies just within the realms of safety when hiking at that elevation, and real attention has to be paid to yourself and your team. Acute mountain sickness can kill, and should not be underestimated.
Traffic with wheels breaks Manaslu’s spell.
Fourteen days on the trails of the Manaslu Circuit can be enchanting. The descent into Dharapani reunites us with vehicular access. 4x4s kicked up dust, honked their horns, and trundled past with Annapurna Circuit trekkers piled high in the back.
Be part of the solution.
The problems of poverty and the environmental issues associated with trekking are very real, but indulging in my passion for mountain scenery, culture, and nature needn’t exacerbate the issues. Responsibly done, trekking is going someway toward relieving the situation.
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