21 Days Into the Hidden Himalayas
An off-the-beaten-track adventure into a Tibetan valley and around the eighth highest mountain in the world
The idea to embark on a journey like this was sparked two years ago when I was dreaming of the cold and snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas in Nepal. I've never been one to take the easiest route, and of course, an expedition into the mountains would have to be the same. In a true Woman Vs. Wild fashion, I wanted to take on the elements and push my body and mind beyond anything I had attempted before. Upon researching the great mountains of the world, I came across Mount Manaslu, the eighth tallest mountain in the world at 8,160m, standing tall with a prominent peak that allowed for very intimate access to its base. This appealed to me over the routes around Everest and Annapurna because it remains relatively untouched and with just a small percentage of the trekkers that frequent the others. The general lack of information online meant to me that there was still much to be discovered and documented. The elements of adventure were very much alive for this off-the-beaten-track trek. For a first timer to high-altitude trekking and also this part of the world, Tsum Valley and the Manaslu Circuit were awesomely impressive and the one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever taken on.
Preparation + Logistics
Two years of hard work, saving, and anticipation led to my long-awaited arrival in Kathmandu. By happenstance I met Rajat, the owner of Rustic Himalayan Adventures, on the first day I arrived, who was as ecstatic as I was to organize a 21-day expedition to this rarely sought after trek and special area of the country. We set forth to fill a long list of prerequisites and find some other trekkers up for this grand adventure. For this trek, a guide is currently required to lead through this restricted area of Nepal, along with three conservation area permits: Manaslu Conservation Area Project (MCAP), Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), and Tsum Valley (restricted area). I elected to hire a porter as well so that I could cut the weight of all of my camera gear along with the heavy winter clothes and gear that I had to bring for the high-altitude and late November weather. We assembled a team of three foreign trekkers, Rajat, our guide, porter, and two videographers to document our adventure. We got all the supplies and logistics sorted in Kathmandu and set off on a sunny early November morning to the mountains.
DAY 1: KATHMANDU TO SOTI KHOLA (700m)
Transport to Start of Trek
After a tasty breakfast in Thamel, the main tourist and commercial district of Kathmandu, the eight of us piled into a couple of jeeps with all of our gear and began our drive five hours to our starting point, a town called Soti Khola in the Gorkha region, just northwest of Kathmandu. Two hours in, we exited the highway onto an off-road and rather bumpy track. During the pre-monsoon and monsoon seasons, the roads flood and cause many landslides in the region. We were fortunate to have come after many of the roads had been repaired and were able to drive through the first potential trekking point, Aarughat, and onto the second town, Soti Khola. Though there are local buses that ply this route, we were grateful to be riding in luxury with good tunes to amp us up for the adventure. Spirits were high and excitement abounded. We drove to the end of the road in and spent the night in Soti Khola in a small teahouse just beside the roaring Buddhi Gandaki River. Both treks to Tsum Valley and Manaslu Circuit overlap for the first few days along this river route heading northward. We sat down for our first of many meals of dal baht (a mixed plate comprised of rice, dal (lentils), mixed vegetables, pickle, and curry) to look over the massive map and itinerary we had set forth for the next 21 days. Despite nerves and excitement mounting, we turned in to bed early to prepare for our first 6AM wakeup call the following morning.
DAY 2: SOTI KHOLA (700m) to MACCHAKHOLA (869m)
Beginning of Trek
6.5 hours | 19.2-kilometer trekking distance | 69-meter net elevation gain
In the early hours on November 2nd, the group assembled and got ready to begin our 21-day adventure. We received word that morning that there had been landslides just ahead on the normal route from Soti Khola to Macchakhola, so there was a detour arranged to take us to the opposite side of the Buddhi Gandaki River. We crossed our first massive suspension bridge and climbed many, many stairs to the top of the other hilltop. We trekked for three and a half hours in the morning to Lapubesi and stopped for a tasty lunch for an hour or so. After basking in the warm sun, we continued on for another three hours in the afternoon through winding hills and forested terrain, sharing the trail with donkeys, ornamented with elaborate headpieces, transporting supplies up and down from the higher mountain towns. We reached our destination for that day, a town rather similar to the first, called Macchakhola in the early afternoon and reflected on our day. I was in awe of the slowly rising mountains flanked on either side of the river and all of the fauna we encountered, and was told that the best was definitely yet to come.
DAY 3: MACCHAKHOLA (869m) to JAGAT (1,340m)
6.5 hours | 22-kilometer trekking distance | 471-meter net elevation gain
Stretching our tired legs, we left just after daybreak with the light of day just creeping into the valley and climbed up and down along the river. I was joined by two adorable baby goats for a little while in the morning, and that set my spirits high for the day. The mountains grew taller and taller on either side of the river and we sat down for lunch in Dobhan and marveled at all of the waterfalls coming down from the tops of the mountains. It was three hours to Jagat and when we reached there, the group relaxed and played some Jenga and started to plan our ascent into Tsum Valley for the next day.
DAY 4: JAGAT (1,340m) to LOKPA (2,240m)
Entry to Tsum Valley
6.25 hours | 17.8-kilometer trekking distance | 900-meter net elevation gain
Today we crossed many bridges amongst many waterfalls and climbed higher and higher through the mountains. We stopped in a scenic town called Philim for lunch that overlooked the river from high above. We then made the climb up past the junction of two rivers splitting the route left for the Manaslu Circuit, and right towards Tsum Valley, where we would venture first. Insane landscapes abounded as we climbed towards the mountaintop town of Lokpa and the snow-capped mountains of Ganesh Himal came into view. That evening the moon rose above the glaciers and it was absolutely massive and full and illuminated an ethereal mist that crawled down to us from the peaks above through the chilly mountain air.
DAY 5: LOKPA (2,240m) to CHHOKANG PARO (3,031m)
9 hours | 25.4-kilometer trekking distance | 791-meter net elevation gain
Day after day, I would mutter "wow" as we climbed through the changing landscapes. I didn't believe Rajat when he told me that the best was yet to come. This day assured that. We climbed low in the valley in the shadow of snow-capped mountains and then up towards the enchanting village of Chumling. We pushed on to Gho, clad with pleasant Tibetan villagers and delicious dal baht to enjoy.
Turning out to be the most physically demanding day of the entire trip, I struggled through the nine hours of climbing and difficult terrain. The final five kilometers to Chhokang Paro were through a treacherous landslide zone with nothing protecting us on the narrow path from falling rocks overhead. When we finally reached our destination, the sun set through that which we had climbed and ignited the green pines along the valley with an orange glow that made me feel a sense of awe and accomplishment despite my aching bones and waning motivation.
DAY 6: CHHOKANG PARO (3,031m) to NILE (3,361m)
5 hours | 9.7-kilometer trekking distance | 330-meter net elevation gain
After the extreme physical demand of the previous day, I was ecstatic to find the route relatively flat and expansive through many villages and fields. Along the route was an exceptional side trip just up the valley wall to Milarepa Cave (Piren Phu), built into the rock face itself. Tucked into a cave were many Buddhist shrines and elaborate paintings. Prayer flags swung in the wind as we looked on at the snow-capped mountain range.
We stopped in Pangdun for the best dal baht so far on our trip and some cheerful laughs. Afterwards, it was only one hour to Nile, a village positioned in a perfect location to see all the way down the valley. I scrambled up the side of the valley close to a monastery perched on high, and watched what would become my favorite sunset of the whole trip. The sun set down through the valley as the clouds rolling over the tips of the snow-topped mountains turned yellow and orange and pink. Tears rolled down my face as I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to get to experience the Himalayas in their grandeur like this.
DAY 7: NILE (3,361m) to MU GOMPA (3,700m)
Terminus of Tsum Valley
3 hours | 7.9-kilometer trekking distance | 339-meter net elevation gain
We woke in the morning to the chill mountain air and began what would be our shortest day up to the terminus of our Tsum Valley trek: Mu Gompa. Along the way, the tree line subsided yielding an obstructed view of the desolate mountain peaks ahead. After three hours, we reached Mu Gompa, a monastery situated at 3,700m high in the mountains very close to the Tibetan border. Within the last 100 years, Tibetans have migrated down from the border to establish a trading route with people within the valley and into Tibet. A major industry in the area is the trade of yarsagumba, the most expensive natural medicine in the world that sells for $10,000/kg. It is used primarily in China as an alleged aphrodisiac and to cure cancer. It is made from a parasitized ghost moth caterpillar with the Cordyceps sinensis fungus and is collected by hand at altitudes of over 5,000m. The difficulty in obtaining yarsagumba and also its high monetary value have been causing violence and human fatalities in this area and elsewhere along the Tibetan plateau.
Atop Mu Gompa, the only sound that existed was that of the wind rushing through the valley and prayer flags flapping in the breeze. Peaceful in its purity. The sheer grandeur of the mountains in our wake and the rivers running left my mind quiet. I'd really and truly never seen anything quite like it. Being so close to Tibet and with its pervasive culture running through the Tsumba people of this valley, I felt that we were getting a sneak peek into Tibet. As if the monks in the monastery and the sound of a conch being blown into the wind weren't enough, a huge white horse appeared like an apparition to stand at the edge of the monastery for hours looking off into the thin mountain air. I thusly named her Majesty and we stood together, humbled, for hours.
DAY 8: MU GOMPA (3,700m) to CHHOKANG PARO (3,031m)
Begin Route Out of Tsum Valley
5.25 hours | 18.4-kilometer trekking distance | 669-meter net elevation loss
The morning was cool and we had one last walk around the monastery before heading out to start making our way out of Tsum Valley. Unfortunately, a small tear in my quad muscle a couple days ago started to give me pain on the way down and that made the going very slow. We made it to a small town called Lamagaon for lunch and continued our way out back to Chhokang Paro.
DAY 9: CHHOKANG PARO (3,031m) to GUMBA LUNGDANG (3,200m)
Entry to Ganesh Himal Range
5 hours | 14.9-kilometer trekking distance | 169-meter net elevation gain
With an extra day on our Tsum Valley permits, our group decided to take a short detour up to see some of the Ganesh Himal range. It was a step climb up from Domje crossing over an icy blue river then up to the top of the neighboring mountains. The view from the top was just incredible. We climbed back along a ridge line headed east overlooking more and more of the range. Mass devastation from the April 2015 earthquakes left the nunnery in Gumba Lungdang in shambles, and currently (November 2017) there was only a modest tent camp while they were rebuilding. This was our first truly cold nights sleep as most of the tents wouldn't close fully, so I spent the majority of the evening huddled up in the kitchen with the friendly nuns before retreating to the tent to attempt to sleep.
DAY 10: GUMBA LUNGDANG (3,200m) to CHUMLING (2,386m)
5 hours | 17.8-kilometer trekking distance | 814-meter net elevation loss
We made the climb back down the mountain from Gumba Lungdang to once again cross the most icy blue river I've ever laid eyes on. We reached Chumling in the late afternoon and enjoyed its location amidst icy mountains and were treated to proper facilities which meant much-needed showers, good food, and a comfortable bed to sleep. This was especially appreciated after a harsh and cold night in the tent camp the previous night. I was in much better spirits too with my leg finally starting to heal up.
The Journey Continues!
Venturing on for another 11 days around Mount Manaslu, the 8th highest mountain on the planet, we encountered even more awe-inspiring mountainscapes, alpine animals, and locals with stories to share.
To read more, be sure to check out Nepal Undiscovered, Part 2: Manaslu Circuit Trek.
Post featured on Outdoor Project.