Slowly they came into view as we descended into Kathmandu airport. Rising so powerfully into the sky, the scale of the Himalaya defines magnificent. For myself and my husband John it was our first time to Nepal and we had chosen our trekking route based on a couple of things. The Everest region seems to be so busy these days and we wanted a quieter, more authentic experience. The Manaslu Circuit Trek promised a one way route with more gradual acclimatisation and a wonderful variety in landscapes, culture and challenging terrain. Our friends Richard and Dave, both veterans of Nepal, had not trekked in the Manaslu / Annapurna area before so we were all excited for the new journey that lay ahead.
My first impressions of Kathmandu can be summed up in two words. “Organised Chaos”. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to how the place works yet somehow it does. You just have to be prepared to “go with the flow”. John described the Traffic as feeling like a real life game of Mario Kart…. Lanes, what lanes! … and the horn … this seems to be used as a warning to the person in front to “remain where you are as I am about to pass and if you move I will kill you”! …. And crossing the street … the strategy needed was just like that in Frogger.
Hotel Yambu was our sanctuary. A quiet little Hotel just off the main Thamel shopping area, it felt like home straight away with the warmest of welcomes from owner Raj and our trekking Guide Dibash. The rooftop area was a great place to do some trip planning or reading a book to relax with views over the city to the hills all around. We took all the usual precautions with filtering our water and eating sensibly as not to get sick and we seemed to end up at the Kathmandu Steak House for dinner and Roadhouse for lunch a lot!
If you need outdoor gear you can pick up just about everything in Thamel but you do need to be wary if you are looking for Gortex to make sure it is quality. We had most of the important stuff from home and then bought things like maps, trekking poles, crampons and a fleece jacket really cheap from a store recommended by Raj as they sold good gear and weren’t in your face trying to haggle every dollar. If you are a good haggler you will enjoy the shopping experience in Thamel but it wasn’t our thing.
After a day of sightseeing we were ready to head off into the mountains. A 7 hour Jeep ride on some of the roughest, most landslide effected roads imaginable took us to the trail head at Soti Khola which is 730 metres above sea level. The pollution is confronting and the road dust intense so make sure to bring a buff to cover your face and plenty of water for the trip.
Our trek was tea house based which meant we would stay overnight at a village in lodge style accommodation and stop for morning tea and lunch on the trail at the village tea houses as well. The villages are nicely staged apart so this meant walking for 2-3hour stints before reaching somewhere for food and top up of water. The Manaslu Circuit trek follows the Budhi Gandarki River for the first 10 days passing Mt Manaslu which means “Mountain of the Spirit” and is the 8th highest mountain in the world at 8163 metres.
You can take a day side trip to the base camp which is 4400 metres or just enjoy the uninterrupted views from the stunning Birendra Lake at 3450 metres. You can also extend your trip with an out and back journey into the remote Tsum Valley. The tea houses are further apart in this region so plan to carry extra supplies during the day if you take this side trip.
After Samdo the trek then turns to traverse past several amazing high mountain peaks, blue lakes and glaciers. Our goal was to get up and over the high point of Larke Pass at 5163metres. From here it is down, down, down and more down following the Durdh Kola river flow from the glaciers as you lose altitude quickly back to Dharapani where yet another exhilarating (for all the wrong reasons) 8 hour Jeep ride back to Kathmandu awaits.
This trek was absolutely mind blowing. From the hot jungle valleys, to the mountain plateaus and fields, to the chilly high snowy peaks and glaciers that you traversed your way through you got to see so much of what makes the Himalaya special in the one trip, with the added bonus of never walking the same piece of trail twice!. There were working temples, chortens, prayer wheels and long ancient mani walls as the land changed from Hindu to Buddhist influence.
We even took part in our own puja ceremony burning juniper to bless our journey up and over the Larke Pass. So many magic moments with our guides and porters too. We had the most wonderful lads help us with all the organising. Everything from where we would stay, how we ordered dinner, trip planning and breaking down the language barriers between our cultures was facilitated by our Nepalese team….. even showing us the occasional special shortcut ;-). They were honest and hard working and we respected their dedication and treasured their laughter and friendship on the trail. The trek can not be done without a Guide and there are many resources and companies out there to help you find your team. We used the experience of Beyond Base Camp treks and expeditions here in Australia and Raj at Hotel Yambu to plan our journey and logistics.
The most incredible weather graced our travels which made the experience that much more enjoyable. We were there in October just after the monsoon had finished. Every day we woke to more “wow” moments as we followed the river framed by massive snow capped mountains. Its powerful flow and the suspension bridges we used to cross it all made for truly cinematic scenery.
The shot from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom always came to mind as I quickly made the crossings.
The people were so friendly, always with a gentle Namaste as we passed on the trail.
When the mule trains and yaks came down the path you always stood up hill. Once these guys were set in motion you wanted to be well out of the way.
The tea houses ranged from quite comfortable to very very basic and it was nice we had brought our own Thermarest collapsable foam pillows and small roll up mattresses as the beds sometimes felt like concrete. We also took a pillow case that we would put over the pillow supplied to keep the hygiene factor in check.
Being organised and prepared with your gear is an important strategy to keeping the process of trekking day after day feeling easy. I will include a gear list at the end of this story to give you an idea of the things we included and how we packed them. You could buy some basic hiking items like socks and yak beanies as well as things like snickers bars, biscuits, sprite and beer along the way from some villages but the higher you went the more expensive it got.. including toilet paper .. We laughed at Dave who packed 6 rolls but it becomes like currency in the mountains!.
Buying bottled water is also a huge problem. There is no capacity for rubbish removal from these high Himalayan areas so the plastic either ends up dumped in the river or attempted to be burned. We found our Grayl water filters not only eliminated the parasites and chemicals that could make you sick but also gave you beautifully tasting water no matter what the source. With all the preparation done there is still the unpredictability of how the altitude will effect you. We made sure we just walked slowly and stayed well hydrated. Especially once we were over 3000 metres, we kept a really easy pace up the steep climbs as to never really get overly out of breath.
We stopped for regular breaks and drank plenty which is easier if you have a camel back rather than a drink bottle. We usually topped up in the afternoon with some hydralite and lots of honey, lemon and ginger tea. I still woke at 3700 metres with a blinding headache and struggled with it most of that day as we walked higher. I started taking Diamox and after an afternoons rest was fit and ready to walk the next day but continued to take Diamox till we were over the high pass. This could have ruined my trip or worse case could have seen me evacuated by helicopter so it is a good idea to take this medication with you just in case.
Dharmashala is the last village before the Larke Pass. It is usual to arrive here around midday then do an acclimatisation walk and be up at 3am the next day to start the 9 hour trek over the pass. This place has an outpost feel and is the most basic of all the places you will stay. There is a mix of lodges and tents to accommodate the overflow.
It sits at 4470 metres and you don’t want to be here for long. The day we walked up there from Samdo it was snowing and I think I had on everything I owned!.
It is an exposed place with very simple kitchen and toilet set up. You want to hope you don’t get altitude sickness here or have to stay an extra day due to bad weather. Having said that Dharmashala is actually the place that I hold my most vivid memory of the trip. Waking up to bright moon lit snowy peaks and walking silently by head light is an experience that will stay in my minds eye forever.
I loved every second of this journey and wasn’t ready for it to end as our days drew to a close. There is something so calming about keeping it basic. No phone reception, no distractions. Getting up, putting your pack on your back and walking is a simplicity that is good for the soul.
Breathing in the epic landscape and the local way of life through your own slowed pace makes you feel humbled and enriched all at the same time. I felt immersed and connected to the place and the people I shared the experience with. I felt really present and in that moment there was a stillness in my mind and an openness of my heart that I often reflect back on.
Thank you Nepal and to our wonderful crew … it was a true adventure!