Polishing off my Annapurna trek with a solid two days of downhill walking, I established a new base in Dharapani at the low elevation of 1860m. Here I waited for my guide to arrive from Kathmandu for the Manaslu circuit. He turned up as expected on September 15th, but the poor soul had fallen off the jeep en route, losing most of the skin off his left hand, and also injuring his knee. We patched him up as best we could and set off on trail the same day.
Two days of trekking were spent regaining the lost elevation. First we walked to Goa, then to Bimtang. For much of the time I enjoyed breathtaking views of the fearsome Manaslu mountain, which towered above us at 8163m as the 8th tallest mountain in the world. I’d like to characterize this section of trail as “muddy jungle” but the descriptor doesn’t quite give justice to its true condition. We picked our way uphill, balancing on rocks and roots, doing our utmost to not slip into shoe-swallowing pools of muck. This added much excitement as I love a good challenge, plus my ever competitive spirit felt like proving itself further by attempting to keep swift pace with my seasoned Nepali guide. I felt a small “win” when he commented that we were moving fast, and managed to arrive in Bimtang (3700m) in about 2/3 of the estimated time. Bimtang marked the end of our jungle trekking for the time being, so I waved goodbye to the butterflies, lush forest, hot temperatures, and mud.
From Bimtang we endeavoured to make the long, steep climb over the Larke La pass and down to the village of Samdo in one day. This required us leaving Bimtang by 5:15am, that is, at first light. The morning was cold and slightly cloudy. We ascended our 1400m fairly quickly considering it was a steep route and the lack of oxygen. I was able to sneak in some breathtaking views of the towering mountains and glaciers around us. Alas, the good views and clear weather were short lived. As we climbed, a cloud rolled in to crush my ice viewing dreams. Then, as we continued the upward grind, those clouds saw fit to give us snow and wind. As the storm worsened I layered on more clothing and we made sure to keep moving to stay warm. At lower elevations I felt a little foolish carrying around the extra gear, but as we picked our way through a snow storm at 5000m I sure was glad to have a “backup plan” if things got really bad – my alpine climbing tent, and winter-rated sleeping bag and pad. I wasn’t terribly nervous about this particular storm as it didn’t seem to carry too much “oomph” but given my unfamiliarity with Nepali weather systems, I was pleased to know we’d be able to survive if we had to “wait it out” in an emergency. We crested the top of the 5135m pass at around 9:30am. Sadly, I only glimpsed partial views of the surrounding sights when the clouds moved for the briefest second. In addition, I was eager to descend out of the clouds, snow, wind, cold temps, and possibility of getting stuck up there. So down we went, not stopping to take break until the high camp at Dharmasala. For future trekkers sake let me warn you now: keep your expectations for Dharmasala low, as its basically just a shack for the dining hall, and you get to sleep in a drafty common tent. Fortunately we were only stopping for soup, after which we continued the descent to Samdo, which took 9 hours total.
En route to Samdo we passed a trail junction that could take you to Tibet in only 4 short hours (walking) which I thought was pretty neat. Locals are allowed to walk into and out of Tibet here for trade purposes. The village of Samdo is purely Gurung itself, and many of the elderly people don’t speak and Nepali, only a Tibetan language. It was wildly interesting to see the way local people dressed, interacted, and went about daily business.
After staying the night in Samdo we chose to have a shorter and easier trekking day, only walking 5 hours to the village of Lho. The trek took us out of the alpine and back into pine forests, and land more suitable for farming. I started to see more homes damaged by the earthquake, but also got to witness how people are bouncing back. In the village of Shyala I even saw an impressive new school being re-built from foreign donations, and it looked to be nearly complete. Lho was a charming little town nestled on a hill with breathtaking views in all directions, including an unreal view of giant Manaslu. After arriving in Lho and eating lunch, we walked up to a fairly large monastery, which was unfortunately heavily damaged in the earthquake. No monks there for this visit, as some buildings were completely demolished and the remaining ones looked rather unsafe. It will take a lot of money to re-build that monastery. In Lho I was able to entertain myself by inserting myself in the kitchen to help prepare food for our Dal Bhat (rice & lentils) dinner. I don’t speak the language well enough to converse but I thoroughly enjoy being around laughing people, no matter the language.
After Lho we continued down-valley with a longer trekking day (9 hours) that took us to Deng. On the way we passed some villages which were damaged enough by the earthquake that they appeared to have been deserted entirely. This section of trail promised to bring us from an elevation of 3180m down to 1860m. However, with the number of steep climbs and descents through the Budhi Gandaki river valley, I couldn’t even begin to estimate our actual elevation change. It became (nearly) comical whenever I thought “this MUST be the last hill” only to encounter yet another 50m climb and 60m descent. This section also took us back into a more jungle-like forest, bringing with it the heat and humidity. I’ll confess that I was too stubborn to change out of my warm high elevation clothes and I was drenched in sweat wearing Polartech in +25 degree weather by the time we reached Deng. Regardless of clothing, I really loved walking though jungle again, as there is always some strange kind of vine, moss, fruit, bird, waterfall, fungus, butterfly or flower to look at.
From Deng we continued down the same river valley to Jagat, (edging closer and closer to the earthquake epicentre). To my surprise we left the jungle rather abruptly, the valley walls opening into steep grassy hills dotted with large pine trees. The effect was beautiful and actually reminded me a little of the hills in the Far West. We crossed landslide after landslide path, picking our way across fragile ground. The type of culture changed as well, and I started to see people dressed differently and living differently, including seeing a lot more corn, people weaving baskets from bamboo, and more bejewelled ladies. Unfortunately, it would seem that I unknowingly injured my right foot, as it was causing me pain with every footstep throughout the day. I also got to see more damages from the earthquake, and how people are living with the impacts. Starting on this day, and for the next couple of days, I witnessed helicopters dropping food supplies such as bags of rice for the locals. Additionally, throughout the valley I observed many households using tarps as roofs, branded by the various foreign organizations which donated these shelters. While many houses are beyond repair and have been deserted, it would appear that overall people are managing ok, with the help of foreign aid.
From Jagat I experienced my most difficult trekking day, to date. What made it so hard was not just a lot of elevation change, but the route required full effort and concentration to not slip or skid off cliffs that I think I was more mentally exhausted than anything. A section of trail here was recently washed out by high river flow from monsoon rains. Unfortunately it slid out all the way to a cliff face, making it totally impassable, so in order to get where we needed to go we had to take an alternative route way, way, up and around using small local trails. This involved steep climbing on slippery wet rocks and through thick leech-y grass. On this day, I was immeasurably happy to have a guide, as it would have been nearly impossible for me navigate this section on my own. Granted, he didn’t know exactly where to go, either, but at least he was able to converse with local people and read signs. In addition, this “trail” took us over narrow ledges on cliff and landslide faces hundreds of meters above the river, which kept things pretty exciting, or at least, rather picturesque. On a positive note, it also took us to remote communities that never see tourists, so I was able to observe and interact with people who I never would have met, otherwise. At the end of our treacherous climb we met with an 800m vert stone staircase that took us all the way back down to the river. I suddenly understood why people needed helicopters to fly in food supplies, as these trails were too difficult for mules or awkward loads. With the heavy pack, my legs took a beating that day, and I basically stumbled into the village of Khorlabesi feeling very sorry for myself. However, when we reached the village, I had to chuck all my problems out the proverbial window.
Here’s a link to a Video I Posted on YouTube of a CRAZY bridge crossing.
Khorlabesi is situated just one mountain over (approx 16kms) from the Nepal earthquake eipcentre. At valley bottom, this village and all the surrounding ones took a hard beating from the earthquake and following landslides. I felt like I suffered during my hike that day, but I could not have suffered like the family that was crushed by rocks coming off the mountains during the earthquake. My problems, however big they seemed minutes prior, came to mean nothing, literally nothing, when I walked over crushed tin and and crumbled walls. Past prayer flags for the dead. Khorlabesi was the worst damaged village I have seen to date, with most people living under tarps still, and only a couple at a point where they can start to re-build. When you have no money, what are your choices? You can’t afford to move elsewhere, can’t afford to re-build. You continue your life where it was to the best of your ability, under a tarp, while still reeling from the loss of friends and family. The suffering in this place felt very real. People smiled and welcomed me half-heartedly, but the air here carried a heavy sense of sadness. On a lighthearted note, I tried some local organic coffee in Khorlabesi and it was actually pretty good.
From here, we continued to walk along with the river, further and further out of the mountains, into lower elevations and warmer, wetter weather. The hiking got easier, the views less striking, and I got a lot muddier and sweatier, if that was even possible. Eventually we reached Aughat Bazar, which is where I write this from.
You may be wondering what we ate and where we slept. Every village has (had) a couple of hotels. We were able to find a legitimate hotel every night that was relatively undamaged. Generally the buildings and homes that came down during the earthquake were ones of older or more primitive construction. Newer style buildings tended to be mostly unharmed save for a few cracks, and these were safe to stay in. As far as food goes, helicopters were dropping food for people who’s homes and lives were completely shattered. Hotels are generally wealthier and can afford to bring in their own food through the crazy trails, so we weren’t eating from people’s aid supplies, for the record. Menu options may have been somewhat limited, but Dal Bhat is the most nutritious meal available, and easiest for locals to make, so it worked out, either way. Hotel owners were very happy to have my business. I’ll reflect here that foreign aid is still critically needed in many of these communities, as a large number of families are currently unable to supply themselves with enough food. In addition, people are in need of better shelter than tarps, and would benefit greatly from donated tin, wood, and other building supplies. It has been great to see much re-building already happening, but I will comment that it all seems to be with the help of foreign aid organizations, privately funded. If you are reading this and are financially able, I urge you to continue making donations to Nepal, via smaller but reputable organizations.
From here in Arughat Bazar, I’ll say Happy Bagging! Next, the guide and I are off to Gosainkund/Helambu. Wish us luck!
UPDATE: view an album of all my Manaslu images here!