One thing I never liked doing since my childhood was to see off someone at the railway station! I still don’t. As the carriages moved out of the platform with me helplessly waving my hands, I used to think that the traveler is the luckiest one on this planet. When my friends went back to their hostels after their vacations, I used to think they were very happy to ‘travel’ back to their places of study where it might well have been to the contrary.
Such views have evolved with age. Destination and purpose of travel does have a bearing now. For example, when I travel to my native place for a vacation, I’m all too excited but same can’t be said for the reverse.
Just like many other Bengali families, travel started in my childhood with trips to Puri (Odisha). Whenever there was scope and time, that was the only destination to aim for. My parents never wasted time to choose places as that was always settled. So was the itinerary. It almost got to a point where I started to prefer staying at home rather than going there.
That pattern changed in our first ever trip to Darjeeling after my class X exams. That was the time I was introduced to the misty bends of the mountain roads. For the first time, I came to know that clouds could hover around me and I could swim in and out of them. The first ever view of Kanchenjunga from the mall was to change the way I looked at travel forever.
Then came the eventful trip to the Garhwal Himalayas in 1999. Events that occurred during the build up to that trip or even during it almost threatened to it, but we somehow managed to pull it off at the end. Nowhere in this world, you get to see a temple at the backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas. I was thrilled to travel through places like Rudraprayag, the place where Corbett shot the man-eating leopard way back in 1925. I plan to share the details of this trip sometime in future on this site.
Then my profession brought me to the city of Delhi. Every year, when my company published the holiday calendar, our (me and my wife) first job was to look for long weekends. They were my windows to venture out to the corners of The Himalayas. Many such weekends took me to places of seclusion in Kumaon, Garhwal and Himachal Pradesh.
Mountain roads have always fascinated me. In more than one ways, they resemble the journey of life. After every bend, you’re presented with a view that is different from the previous one. It’s like a play with its scenes unfolding. You never know what surprise awaits you at the next bend. Mountains are probably the only places which let you to be with yourself. When you walk the trails up or down the slopes, you’re always with yourself and no one else. You’re responsible for the decisions you take, the speed at which you travel and hence, how soon you reach your destination.
I wish to share these experiences with you with my posts about my voyages. If they interest you, I’ll be more than happy to answer any queries you may have about those trips. Looking forward to interact with you all.
I understand it’s difficult to collate the threads (both for me as well as the readers) to stitch the way back to the story when there’s a significant gap between episodes. I apologize to my readers for that. Okay, so we paused at Dharamsala and had to resume our journey towards “the” Larkya La, the important pass that connects the Manaslu region with the Annapurna region of Central Nepal.
13th November, 2019
The pain in my throat kept increasing through the previous night as I kept tossing around in search of some elusive sleep. I only know too well, the pattern of these pains & infections. Swallowing will get tougher and a feeling of a growing lump will keep increasing and will reach it’s peak in the morning hours. However, as the day progresses, it will subside giving a false feeling of comfort only to return at night. I never actually got to sleep, but was able to reach some sort of half-consciousness and that’s when the alarm went off at 3 AM (tuned an hour earlier than previous days). As I sat up, I saw the dark outline of Dhananjoy engrossed in his meditation. Niladri and Ranjan da were still asleep. I mustered enough courage to venture out of the hut, dark into the night. The place was bustling with many travelers already awake, some even about to start their hike. The kitchen was also active. The flashing head torches from different travelers as well as support staff made the place appear as a coal mine, albeit the temperature reaching the opposite extreme. As expected, the stream of water near the toilet had already frozen. After my return to the room, I saw rest of the members also underway with their preparations. While they went about with theirs, I thought of utilizing the “valuable lead” that I had over them to lie down within the blanket which now appeared more cosy.
After sometime, our guide made an appearance at the door and asked if we were prepared to go. The initial plan was to start at 4 AM, but since we were all ready, he proposed to start even immediately and we readily agreed. We eventually started at 3.45 AM through the darkness through the meandering path beyond the tea house which gradually moved up the slopes. The sky had nothing more than a soft glow coming out of the moon, which was no more than a couple of days past the new moon phase.
As planned earlier, our pockets were loaded with cashew nuts, raisins, almonds and a few chocolate bars. The store of nuts and raisins were given to us by Dhananjoy after diligently creating packs for all of us during the previous evening. There won’t be any tea houses till we descend to the other side of the pass and that wasn’t likely to be before lunch. Hence, the idea was to keep munching these along with gulps of water. It was better said than done. In practical, it wasn’t easy to pull out the gloves, then put our hands to the pockets to bring out the nuts. All that seemed to be a load of work which was best kept at bay in the bitter cold. What ended up happening was we kept plodding ahead for sometime to take a halt. All the activities of food and drink was completed as early as possible and then resume the journey. This pattern kept repeating. There were no sounds other than heavy breathing of our fellow travelers. We could see a moving beeline of head torches ahead of us, which gave us a rough idea of the path ahead. The trail was fairly gradual considering the altitude. Tinkling bells hanging from the necks of grazing yaks kept coming along. Our breaths condensed as soon as they left our nostrils, but our clothing, by and large, kept us decently warm. Nights are anyways longer during this part of the year and we were in Central Nepal. Hence, sunlight was still somewhat distant. The ascent to the pass and the descent beyond, kept looming around (going by my prior experience with Cho La, another high altitude pass that connects the Everest Base Camp trail to the Gokyo region) in my mind. I tried to force them away, but the darkness around, didn’t help the cause as there wasn’t much to look upon to divert the mind. After plodding ahead for some more time, a feeble light started to trickle in on the eastern horizon and the outline of the mountain ranges started getting clearer. Our steps skidded at times over the frozen mist and ice that lay on the trail and we tried to avoid those patches carefully as we moved along. The morning light started to spread fast which added to our energy levels.
At about 6 AM in the morning, we reached a temporary tea stall (yes, you’ve heard it right, a teat stall indeed in that God forsaken high altitude). Trekkers flocked around the place. It was a make shift shelter created by stacking up boulders on all sides with a tin shed. When asked about the price, it came out as a bolt from the blue, 300/- in Nepalese currency for every cup of tea. But, considering the circumstances, it gradually settled in and suddenly the price started looking “cheaper”. At first, we went inside where a kerosene stove was burning with a pan of water getting constantly getting boiled. The place was covered with smoke resulting due to insufficient combustion of fuel at the high altitude. A number of people cramming in that small place in the hope to get some warmth (not just from the steaming mug of tea/coffee, but also from the burning stove) also didn’t help the cause and we were forced to come outside to get some fresh (though rarefied) air. Every hot sip literally helped bolstering our energy levels (as if every sip gulped down helped reducing the trembling by some proportion). Despite our want to spend some more time at the place, we continued our journey with the aim of reaching the pass before the sun started melting the overnight snow.
The route now meandered through rocks and boulders which were now more increasingly covered with overnight snow, but fortunately, the trail was still somewhat clear, mainly due to footsteps of earlier travelers. Iron poles were erected at regular intervals. At sometime they must have had metal plates to indicate direction or distance towards the impending pass, but snow and wind must have reduced them to their current state. Though we couldn’t assess the distance, but merely their presence indicated progress in some imaginary units. The sun was now up in the sky, which made the cold somewhat bearable.
However, at the same time, it kept playing on my mind that melting snow, especially on the side of descent would pose an increasing challenge. Guides and porters had already warned us about the presence of a large rock fall area on the way of descent as soon as one crosses over the pass. I tried hard to keep such thoughts at bay and bask in the fact that the ascent to the pass was relatively gradual (as far as it can be in such altitudes). There was no trace of vegetation (not even a slice of grass) all around as snow and boulders held their sway. We could clearly see the tracts of the glaciers coming down the slopes of the mountain peaks surrounding the place. A slightest of glance around could tell anybody that these are not stable landscapes. The topography, shape and size keeps changing constantly aided by avalanches, land slides which bring down the debris from the upper slopes down to the bed of the glacier camouflaging its surface under which lies years of accumulated and solidified ice.
After sometime, the trail headed down towards a small and relatively flat ground that appeared unusually white in appearance and it turned out, part of it was due to snow and the rest due to white sand and gravel. It appeared almost like a football ground and we were amazed to walk on “level” grounds at such an altitude, though walking was not as easy, thanks to the hardened ice over its surface.
We spent sometime taking snaps of each other. When we cast a glance around the place, we found it to be encircled by mountain peaks, glaciers came down their slopes right to the ground where we stood upon. Narrow streams also made their way through the slopes and over the ground (a clear sign of melting ice in the sun).
After crossing the place, we started moving up along the slopes on the other side of the ground. I trained by eyes towards a distant iron pole, the next milestone. My sense told me that the pass shouldn’t be far from there. I could also see other climbers moving up the slopes (though diminished in stature because of the distance). After reaching that pole, I was very pleased. Not because I could see the pass in front (which was still beyond my sight, possibly a few more such poles away), but I saw some prayer flags, a welcome sign in such areas that informs the travelers about the proximity of a mountain pass.
We could see some Mani stones, which were nothing more than some stones stacked up together just strong enough to hoist a string of prayer flags. Regardless of the regions, all passes in the higher Himalayas or Karakoram bears the same look. Their frequency gradually increased as we crossed a few more poles till we finally got to see a crowd who were shouting and celebrating their arrival at the most coveted Larkya La.
It was unlike Cho La, where the ascent was very steep and here a gentle slope gradually ascended to a place, which was flat enough to house significant number of people and prayer flags. We too, finally entered the pass. The photograph point (the place where there is a signboard that announces the name of the pass and its height 5106 m) was already occupied with different teams taking their turns to take snaps with the writing in the background. We also had to await our turn and we four went up along with our guide and porters. Members from other teams helped us out with snaps as we returned the favor to them.
I cast a glance at both sides of the pass and looked at the metal plate that announced the end of Manaslu Conservation Area and welcomed us to the Annapurna Conservation Area. The pass also marked an end to the Gorkha district and the beginning of the Manang district of Nepal. The Western horizon was marked with numerous mountain peaks of the Annapurna region of Nepal.
We started our descent on a ground that was somewhat gradual to start with, but very soon the slopes increased and the majority of the surface was covered with snow (fresh and soft, which was a relief). The trail again was created by footsteps of earlier travelers.
On our left, lay a huge glacier. The trail over the snow covered part was relatively less steep, but the one that avoided the snow, had steeper slopes, but I chose to stick to that part. Despite the grand view at our disposal all around us, we had to focus on the track that led us down to the valley down below. The snow, fortunately didn’t cover a large section of the descent and I was elated to find that. However, my excitement didn’t last long as snow gave way to extremely unstable, gravel laden, skiddy and narrow path that moved steeply downwards. The trail was marred with multiple switch back bends.
These kind of tracks demand good balance. You can’t walk too slow by pressing on your feet, trying to gain grip, which is non-existent (and can, in fact, trigger small slides over loosely placed gravels). Hence, it is advisable to maintain a reasonable speed so that you don’t rest your feet too long on a surface that inevitably fails you. The caution there is to control the momentum which can go out of control. The local guides and porters virtual ran down the surfaces and I often had to make passage for them on their way down, especially when they had loads on their backs.
At this stretch, all of our members got separated from each other by their respective speeds, but all were in sight of each other, regardless of their positions (the ones with faster pace were visible two or three levels below, while others were behind by the same distance). It was a treacherous ground to tread upon. As if nature deliberately sprinkled the track with loosely placed gravels and was trying to relish your fall. Our guide kept a constant vigil on me and on more than one occasion, had to hold me by my backpack in order to prevent me from slipping. After crossing a few bends, I heard a sound which appeared to me as a thunder coming from a distant place. Many other travelers too heard it and were looking at a particular direction. The sky was clear, so there was no chance of a storm. After peeping out from behind of other travelers, I understood the cause. Dust of snow was still rising up from the debris that came down the slopes of a distant glacier. Avalanche!
As we stood there, more bursts of it came down the slopes to add to the snow dust and rubble in the glacial bed. No doubt it was a treat to watch with your own eyes, but at the same time, you thank the nature for not serving it down the place where you stood. A quick recall of the videos that came out of the Everest Base camp in May 2015 sent a chill down the spine. Keeping those thoughts aside, we looked around to see the awe-inspiring views of the snow peaks of the Annapurna range. We mused over the fact that the previous year, we saw them from the Annapurna base camp and this time around, we were looking at them from a different angle altogether!
After moving down further, we could see a glacial lake among the accumulated debris all around. It was soothing for our eyes amidst the sights of destruction all around. As if, nature was protesting our intrusion in an area entirely private to her. After many more minor slides, I finally reached a relatively stable place where our guide asked me to move down slowly, while he moved back up again to assist another member of our group who was still up the slopes. If we are able to tell our tales today, it’s because of their tiring and often thankless support on these tough terrains.
Every ordeal has an end and so did this. The slopes gradually became more gradual and after sometime, we reached a place called Larke Fedi, the first set of tea houses one encounters immediately after the descent from Larkya La. We gradually made our way into a tea house and ordered our lunch. We were in no hurry for the lunch to get served despite the fact of not having a formal breakfast in the morning. More time taken implies more rest at the place. All of our minds were much lighter because of the fact that Larkya La was now behind us.
The trail from here on, was going to head down successively. The travel would be long, but we’d be losing altitude by the day. During lunch, we recalled our journey from Dharamsala all through the way down to the place where we were sitting at that point, the thicks and thins of it. A couple of travelers entered the inn and straight away went for the beds without even bothering to remove their gears and they enjoyed their sleep all through the time when we were having our lunch. After lunch, we didn’t lose much time as there was still about a couple of hours of travel left to reach Bimthang. So, we hit the trail once again. After moving down for sometime we saw tree trunks (not leaves) reappearing – a sign of decreasing altitude. Niladri and Dhananjoy strode ahead while me an Ranjan da followed them at our own pace. Now the restlessness was to finish off the remaining track as fast as possible to reach Bimthang to have some time to relax at the end of a tiring day of walk. We kept crossing multiple bends with the hope of sighting the houses of Bimthang after every crossover, but it kept us guessing. Asking about the remaining distance to our guide was of no use as they have their own standards of measuring distance which often doesn’t match with those of us from the plains. But as they say, whatever has a start, meets its end, we finally got to see the tea houses of Bimthang from a long distance but that was enough to get us energized and we sped ahead towards the hutments.
Bimthang is located in a wide valley surrounded by high mountains all around and offered spectacular views all around it. We retired to our respective rooms. Temptation was there to immediately lie down on the bed for sometime, but I resisted it and changed my gears and prepared the backpack for the morrow till the inertia lasted.
The evening tea party of that day was really enjoyable. All of our minds were light and filled with a sense of achievement. At the dinner table, a Sherpa guide from a different team showed us some magic tricks using playing cards. After that, we subsided under our blankets and for the first time in this trek, I immersed into deep sleep. We were sleeping at 3590 m. The nest day’s walk would take us to Dharapani, the last place to be reached by foot.
Sleep eluded me for a greater part of the night and it was only towards the morning, I was starting to get some sleep. My mind was preoccupied with the thoughts about crossing Larkya La. It is the pinnacle of this journey. Treading on slopes laden with snow keeps playing on my mind. I recalled a similar experience about crossing the Cho La, the pass we had to cross to reach the Gokyo region from the Everest base camp trail. I had some tough time dealing with the fresh snow and even developed a limited form of high altitude sickness. But I had excellent support from our guide & the porters. They were more experienced than the support staff we had this time. Another cause of concern was availability (or rather, potential scarcity) of blankets at Dharamsala. There’s only one tea house. The capacity of accommodation was much less than any other place in this route. We did have our own sleeping bags, and might need to fall back to them in case blankets weren’t available. It’s crucial to have some sleep because the next day, we need to embark on our ascent in the dark hours of the night (no later than 4 AM). It’s crucial to cross the pass before the solar rays gain power and the ice starts to melt.
Just beyond Samdo, the trail was level and walking was easy. It went along the slopes of the mountains, caving in and out following the edges. Samdo and its tea houses were still visible even after covering a long distance. After sometime we reached the junction from where, one track turned north towards the Tibetan border. and we continued westwards. There were many tea houses at this place. The place was called Larkya bazar. Many travelers who stayed there last night, were now preparing to start their journey. Beyond Larkya bazar, the trail started to move up the slopes. To the left of the route, the steep mountain walls dived straight into the glacial bed. A huge river of ice and snow stared at us. The surface of it was white due to fresh deposit of snow at some places, dark at others due to a cover of boulders. It was the birthplace of the river Budhi Gandaki.
Fortunately for us, clouds stayed clear. We spent sometime in sunshine in a valley. Manaslu wasn’t visible anymore. In fact, it went out of our views midway through the route from Samagaun to Samdo. It won’t be visible until we reach Bimthang after our descent from Larkya La. Herds of mules kept coming from both directions and we kept our vigil. I hoped we’d see less of them after Samdo, but I was wrong.
They are the lifelines in these areas as they keep the supply lines running. The same responsibilities get carried out by yaks in the Everest region. Yaks are present in these regions too, but they’re not used to ferry loads, they’re mainly herded for milk, fur and meat. On the contrary, mules don’t get used at all in the Everest region. In fact one seldom gets to see them there. Herds of yaks are a measure of wealth and relative prosperity in these remote villages primarily inhabited by people of Tibetan origin, whose predecessors came down from the North fleeing their homes during Chinese invasion of Tibet.
We kept crossing the bends and finally reached one, beyond which started a long stretched landslide area. Beyond that stretch, the tea houses of Dharamsala were faintly visible. We spent sometime to breathe and drink some water. The water, which was lukewarm when we filled our bottles at Samdo, now turned cold. But for some reason, warm water doesn’t help to quench my thirst. So, I felt satisfied even though the water was very cold. It was to have its effect on my throat for the remainder of the journey. The first symptoms of it started at night at Dharamsala.
After some rest, I took a concentrated look at the stretch ahead. The initial section was a narrow trail of loose dust and pebbles, followed by another stretch of boulder heaps fed by landslides from the upper reaches of the mountain. Many small streams of water permeated through the loosely held heaps to cross over the trail and disappear down the slopes on the left. Some parts of the trail had a fence in an attempt to arrest the slides. But they appeared to be more of mental satisfaction than anything more concrete. After all these sections, the landslide zone ended and relatively safer track continued to the tea houses of Dharamsala. I started my walk along the trail, trying to control my momentum down the dusty slopes. I then continued over the boulder heaps, at times casting a glance on the high slopes to the right and finally reached its end to breathe a sigh of relief. We plodded ahead over the gentle slopes to reach the tea houses.
Our porters kept our bags outside. We waited for sometime expecting allotment of our rooms. We were finally allotted one room for all four of us. The room was just about comfortable for all of us to sleep. The entire floor was covered by a thick mattress spread over stones, somewhat leveled. Our bags had to be kept along the sides and the shoes & slippers occupied the space between the mattress and the door. We stuffed the shoes, our walking sticks, water bottles and small backpacks in that narrow space between the mattress and the door. No matter how crammed the space might sound, it’s very pleasing, considering the circumstances. We were at the base of a mountain pass and there was a mattress to sleep on. That’s good enough and what more can we ask for? They’ll provide blankets too, at a charge of 200 Nepalese rupees. Most of us spread our wet clothes to dry them up, hung up our shoes and put on the slippers to free our toes and headed for the dining space. There was a single toilet a few steps ahead downhill. The day was pleasantly warm.
The dining space was a small room just enough for about 10 people to dine. We enjoyed our usual lunch of the Nepalese staple “dal bhaat” accompanied by the chilly pickle from Ranjan da. Thanks to the clear weather, the room bathed in bright sunlight which helped to buoy the mood.
Just outside the kitchen and dining space, towering mountains encircled the place as if we stood on an amphitheater guarded by the mountains.
After lunch, we lied down in the sun to bask ourselves till it lasted. Contrary to my expectations from a distance, the bed wasn’t grassy, but rocky and the edges of the stones didn’t make for a comfortable sleep. I kept tossing around hoping to find a balance between the underlying pointed rocks, but finally gave up. I spent rest of the time sitting while others had a comfortable nap covering their face from the sun by their hats.
The mountains formed a wall in front of us. Ice falls came down their slopes to meet the glacier at their base. Beyond the tea houses, multiple tracks went up the slopes and one of them must be the route that should take us to Larkya La. This was our last night in the Gorkha district. After crossing the pass, we’d enter Manang, an important district of Nepal’s Annapurna region. Larkya La also marks an end of the Manaslu Conservation Area and the beginning of the Annapurna Conservation Area. That’s the reason one requires two permits for these two conservation area projects to cover this trail. Dharapani, the final destination of this journey, is also an important junction, where the Manaslu circuit trail meets the other famous route, the Annapurna Circuit trail.
I envied the other members of the group, who were enjoying a comfortable nap in the warm sun, lying down along the slopes. sometime later, I turned my focus around the surrounding mountains and right behind us, along the slopes, many trekkers from other groups enjoyed their hikes to the top. I identified the German couple among them. They seemed to exploit the most of their presence in the Himalayas. As I might have cited before in this series, they toured the Lang Tang region of Nepal, before turning their attention to the Manaslu Circuit and they’ve been traveling in Nepal for almost a month. As the evening advanced, the shadows of the mountains elongated and the sun lost its grip on the day’s proceedings. The cold winds, as if waiting for their turn, started to blow. In some of the distant valleys, visible from where we sat, we could see yaks grazing around. The fading sun did little to distract them.
From sometime during the afternoon, I started to feel a slight pain in my throat while swallowing food and water. I didn’t give much importance, but it started to increase with passing time. I soon realized that my act of gulping down sips of cold water (apparently to quench my thirst properly) started to have its impact. It made me a tad nervous as I knew from prior experience, it would only aggravate by every passing hour.
It was declared from the kitchen, that dinner was to be served at 6.30 PM (instead of 7, as had been the norm in the tea houses down under). The reason was obvious. No one prefers to stay awake late as most of the travelers (and hence, the support staff at the tea house) would rouse early in the wee hours of the night to start off for the hike to Larkya La. I realized that I forgot to collect some of my clothes (spread out for drying) before darkness and the lost moisture reclaimed their place. I wrapped them up and forced them down at the bottom of my backpack. Chances of wearing them again in this journey became remote.
After dinner, we brushed our teeth (to save time for this act in the morning) – a practice I started since Namrung (thanks to Dhananjoy’s advice). For that we had to walk down the slope to reach near the toilet which had a water pipe fixed up nearby on a rock. During the day, we saw water coming out of it relentlessly, but now, the stream was thin. A quick glance on the ground with our head torches told the story. The stream of water on the ground have started to freeze. Chances of having running water in the next morning were out of question. We subsided into our rooms and started packing up our backpacks and getting things ready for the morrow. Our guide made an appearance to give us an outline for the next day’s travel. We’d have to start no later than 4 AM. Head torches would be crucial. Though the kitchen staff usually gets ready, but we’d not waste anytime for breakfast and first meal of the day would be the lunch at the first halt just after descent from the pass on the other side. Since it was going to be a long gap, we prepared small packets of dry fruits and biscuits to carry along with us. The idea was to munch them at regular intervals in small amounts to keep not just hunger, but also high altitude sickness at bay. Some chocolate bars also made their way into the packs. Sugar, as they say, generates more energy. Our guide also warned us to keep sipping water at regular intervals, not just during the travel but also throughout the night to keep our blood circulations normal at these altitudes. The blankets were warm, but we went in with our thermal inner-wares. I must say, it was comfortable under the circumstances. I thanked the Nepalese people for their humongous efforts to keep the trail well oiled and running even under adverse conditions. Sleeping on a bed, under a warm blanket at an altitude of 4450 m, was a big ask and it’s only possible in a country like Nepal. My throat caused more pain and I gulped down a tablet of Paracetamol as a caution. Larkya La loomed in my mind and possibly others’ too.
Our last evening at Samagaun was spent very well. Time just flew. There was some wonderful music presented by the porters & guides of different teams. Going by our guide’s statement, the walk from Samagaun to the next destination Samdo was supposed to be easy & short. More importantly, on level ground! It shouldn’t take us more than three hours to reach there. We could have left Samagaun a bit later after having some more sleep, but we chose not to. It’s always better to start early. We could spend time en route with photography, reach the day’s destination with enough time in our hands to relax. Manaslu didn’t disappoint us in the second morning as well. The same acts of sunlight was repeated as we enjoyed our morning tea.
The breakfast had the same items. None of us enjoyed it much as it was mainly a matter of forcing something down the throats to fill our stomachs. Just enough with some fluids to keep our blood circulation going. Appetite wasn’t great at these high altitudes. We handed over the bags to our porters and hit the trail which meandered through the streets of Samagaun village before entering a wide valley.
Manaslu was shining like a silver blaze and was visible from everywhere, as if keeping a strict vigil on us, the foreigners in her territory.
We were still in the Gorkha district, but were gradually nearing its end as we moved closer towards the Larkya pass. The day would take us to Samdo and the day after, to Dharamsala, which was at the base of Larkya pass (or Larkya la, as they call it in Tibetan language).
As we moved on, the valley widened and it almost gave us a feeling of walking on level ground, but for the boulders spread across the tracks. We could still see trees around us, but their heights kept diminishing, but the flora was colorful.
Members of our group kept rolling their shutters on and rightly so. The surroundings offered ample opportunity. The morning was bright with no trace of clouds. I too had my share of photography but I kept plodding ahead and after sometime I found myself walking alone.
Members of some other trekking groups, who started later than us, caught up and moved ahead. All of their faces were now familiar. I watched the German couple walking past. They always started late, but reached the destination way ahead of us and also had time for side excursions & hikes in the afternoon. The valley was wide open and the river Budhi Gandaki flowed through one of its sides. We were approaching towards it’s origin. It has its origin in the glaciers coming down the slopes of Larkya La.
The vegetation acquired a red color, but it wasn’t the flowers, but the leaves. It was that period of the year which was just before the winters when these leaves would drop off and the entire area was to get blanketed by snow. The thought of snow gave me some worries about the quantities we were likely to face at the pass. Going by the narration of our guide, the ascent to the pass is relatively gradual but after crossing it, there lies a large rockfall zone which is expected to be steep and the presence of snow could add to the challenge. I brushed aside those thoughts and diverted my attention towards nature’s gorgeous display of splendor.
The sun was now high in the sky, which forced us to peel off our jackets. The trees diminished in their size & stature, giving way to shrubs, bushes & finally it led to the barren land of boulders. That’s when I saw the huts of Samdo which lay at a great distance adoring the top of a hill, still a long distance away.
That hill was to be the only hike for us in a day which was otherwise marked by walking on relatively level grounds. I could see trekkers (who were reduced to the stature of ants from this great distance) and lines of mules dotting the switchback trail that moved up the slopes of the hill towards Samdo. We gradually started to move down towards the banks of the river and reached a wooden bridge. Budhi Gandaki criss-crossed the trail to move towards the left and we started to hike the hill.
The trail was barely wide enough for one person and one had to be careful while giving passage to others coming down from the opposite direction. After crossing a few bends, I heard the “now disturbing” sounds of the bells. It was obvious that I was in front of a line of mules with loads on their backs, fast catching up. I wasn’t particularly welcoming them but I had no choice. A quick look below revealed that they were just reaching the previous bend and I had to reach the next, as fast as possible to get to a place which would just about allow me to stand to give passage to the herd. I hiked as fast as I could to reach there as early as possible and just as I reached there, still gasping for breath, the first of the mules appeared at the bend. They moved upwards, hopping, jumping and at times, skidding on the slopes. At times more than one of them tried to move in parallel, giving a tough time to me, who was just about aligned to the wall. The herd seemed never ending. Every time I thought I’d seen the last one through and attempted to get rid of the place, another one popped up at the bend, forcing me to abandon the idea. Finally, I heard the whistle of the man who was bringing up the rear. Once he passed over, I resumed my journey. After a few more bends, I finally arrived at the top of the hill and was glad to find the ground relatively level and wide.
The entrance gate of Samdo greeted us as we entered the village. I now had sometime to take a break to look down the trail and the wide valley below, which we just traversed to reach Samdo.
The group members and our guide & porters were yet to reach. I had to wait for them to be able to get to the tea house designated for us. It gave me some opportunity for photography. Straight down the valley, right at the end of it, a mountain peak dazzled in the backdrop of pastel blue sky.
Towards my right, I could clearly see the track of Budhi Gandaki river. Samdo just comprised of a few tea houses and beyond that, the trail moved along the sides of the mountains to reach a junction point. From there, two distinct routes were visible. The one towards north, went towards the Tibet border, a five hour walk. The other, went Westwards, towards Dharamsala, our destination for the morrow. After reaching the hill top, I walked in the company of a Sherpa guide who hailed from the Limbu region of eastern Nepal, the region famous for the trek towards the base camp of the world’s third highest mountain, Mt Kanchenjunga. He was a sturdy guy. I inquired about that trail, which isn’t frequented by many, but is beautiful with its flora, fauna and above all, the majestic views of the mountains of the Kanchenjunga group. From his narration, it appeared that the region is not as well equipped with tea houses as other parts of Nepal and trekkers have to resort to tents at many places. Their destination was Larkya Bazar, a place just ahead of Samdo. We parted ways and I rejoined my group. By now, the porters had arrived and placed our bags at the tea house. We went ahead and occupied our respective rooms. We still had a good half a day at our disposal and got engaged in hanging our clothes in the bright sunshine with the hope of drying them up. At this stage of the trek, we were down to 2-3 sets of attires, having to alternate them every other day. Hence, drying them up was very crucial. The dining place was not at the same tea house. We had to walk down to the neighboring one for lunch. Fortunately for us, since Namrung, our days of walking has been short, leaving the second half mostly for rest. This day was even shorter.
After lunch, many trekkers (including the German couple) headed for hiking a nearby mountain. We never could muster the energy and rather preferred to relax. But that didn’t stop us from venturing on level grounds, which took us to a nearby barley field from where we could see through the valley which we traversed.
We could clearly see the trail towards Samagaun and the trajectory of the river Budhi Gandaki. It was a strange feeling to think about the river which gave us company right from Soti Khola, through the lower reaches of the trail and now, its almost time to bid adieu to her when we embark for Dharamsala.
Same goes for the Gorkha district which has provided hospitality to us through these arduous days of trekking. The sunshine attained a golden yellow shade and so did the mountain slopes and the distance peaks. The color told us that time was ripe for sunset, but the place was not suitable for such views with the peaks just peeping from behind the towering walls of the mountain nearby. The glow of the fading rays of sun showered on the fields instead and also on the trail of the river which disappeared at the far end behind a bend.
Around us, there were many places where streams of rocks and boulders came down from the top exposing the bare interior of the mountains. They bore the signs of past devastation, sudden landslides, which are very common in these ecologically and geologically unstable areas. The slope of the hills on which these tea houses reside aren’t much safer either. It’s just by the grace of nature, they’ve been spared its wrath, but that’s never a guarantee. Trails and villages in these areas are ever changing. I looked at the trail for the next day, which moved gradually upwards in the Westerly direction. It appeared as a narrow tape along the slopes till it disappeared behind a bend on the wall of the distant mountain. My mind went along with it. The next day, just as we reached Samdo, we’ll take the exit route, following that trail. Somewhere beyond that bend, and after crossing many of them, lies Dharamsala, nestled somewhere in the slopes. The launching pad for our ascent to Larkya La.
As evening wore on, we headed to the dining place. Biting cold gripped the place. After dinner, our guide gave us a glimpse of the next day’s trail. It should take us about 4-5 hours to reach Dharamsala. The slope is expected to rise, though somewhat gradually in most of the cases, steep at times. After all that, a landslide area should greet us. After crossing it for about two kms, we should be at Dharamsala. Landslides again! They never seem to end and why should they? We’re now approaching the pass and they have all the more reason to be around. With some speculations about the next day’s trail, we went under the blankets at 3690 m.
It’s been sometime since I wrote the previous episode. Since then, things moved fast and in the most unexpected way. The infection gripped the world, reached the doors of our country, restrictions kicked in. Some of us lost our jobs, many others lost their food & shelter. For me, fortunately enough, it hasn’t bit that hard yet, though I got separated from my mother and daughter, who are now stuck in my home town Kolkata (they went there to spend a vacation of two weeks, now extended to God knows how many days). Many of us have been trying different ways to keep stress at bay. One of the things I tried (which I also do in “normal” times) is to reminisce about my past travels. That goes to an extent to re-live those days literally by calendar dates. I’m doing so, more than ever now in these “restricted” times. So, where did we stop last time? Yes, we spent our first night at Samagaun village.
10th November, 2019
The next morning, we woke up to biting cold, quite expected at this altitude. After all, we were at the village from where the trek to Manaslu Base Camp starts and hence, all the ascents to the peak. The day’s plan was to visit Pungyen Gompa (as the locals call it), a nearby monastery higher on the slopes. It should take us about three hours to reach there, spend some time and another two hours to come back. We assembled at the terrace of the lodge. The sky was still dark. As Niladri prepared the morning tea and started handing out the steaming mugs, our hands trembled even after being wrapped in warm gloves. The mighty Mt Manaslu and its neighbors were supposed to be right in front of us, but darkness concealed them. As we chatted around, a soft light started spreading and the silhouette of the Himalayan ranges started becoming clearer. As the light spread, the ranges started to reclaim their shape and color. All chatting stopped and all pairs of eyes were fixed on the double edged peak of Mt Manaslu, which now started to acquire a tinge of gold.
Our experience in the Himalayas told us that the acts of the drama up on the high mountain slopes will unfold fast, colors will change in the blink of an eye as the Sun readies to gear up for another day’s toil. Nature’s paint brushes changed hands, as if they’ve been handed over to a child, who now started to shower shades of gold over Mt Manaslu and its neighbors. There were many stages of it and all of our cameras captured almost every stage which led to a point when the twin peaks of Manaslu bathed in gold.
We kept shifting our lenses at different zoom levels to get closer or wider angles but were never satisfied. No matter how many snaps I share in this write up (and there are tons of them), I still can’t recreate that magic which has left an indelible mark on us. These are the moments that can justify walking for miles, crossing over landslide zones, all the ups and downs.
The strong winds that keep dashing at these high peaks, often throws up a storm of snow particles around the peak which makes it appear as wearing a scarf around its neck. The scarf too, acquired the shade of gold. All of the residing travelers at the tea house witnessed the event. Groups scattered around their respective tables, having their morning sip of tea or coffee, but their eyes gazed on the mountain.
Loaded with morning views of Mt Manaslu, we ventured out for the day’s hike. Our way went back along the same route we took while reaching Samagaun and after exiting the main residential areas, we entered the fields. The valley was wide open with yaks grazing around. We could see them grazing even at distant places where they appeared as moving black or brown dots, depending on their fur colors. With the sun now fully out, Manaslu dazzled with its snowy slopes and glaciers.
After the fields, we reached a place where there was a school. It was the only school we came across in the entire area we’ve traveled in this part of the region. Students could study up to third or fourth standard, beyond which, Kathmandu was the only available option. Kids played around in the bright sunshine. They were enjoying their hands at volleyball. Some of our members got excited and joined them.
After exiting the school campus, we reached that point which had a diversion towards the route to Pungyen monastery. We started our hike, which was gradual amidst forests to start with. Though it wasn’t steep but we had to take off our jackets (only to put them back on later at higher altitudes) as the sun was weighing heavy and hot on our backs. The trail initially zig-zagged through scattered trees, which started to disappear as we gained height.
The hike started becoming steep as soon as we reached beyond the tree line and the landscape started changing dramatically. Trees transformed to bushes, which too became rare after sometime. The mountain peaks (now well known to us by the virtue of repeated acquaintance with their shapes) increased in their size and stature.
Many other group of travelers headed towards the monastery. We could see them walking or hiking at varying distances from us. As we kept moving up, slopes gained steepness and the glaciers along the mountain slopes gained prominence. The sky was pastel blue.
Suddenly, our guide screamed to draw our attention. I looked back to see him point at a particular direction high up on the slopes on our right. Following that, we saw some moving objects. After a careful glance, we identified them as a grazing herd of Himalayan mountain goats.
It surprised me to some extent, given the fact that there weren’t many bushes around and the grass too was scarce. The trail now became narrow with loosely placed pebbles and boulders taking the place of hard soil. That necessitated some care to prevent skidding. We reached a gate of the monastery. While that got us elated, but that didn’t last long. It turned out to be the lower gate and the actual location of the monastery was further ahead. The glaciers increased in their size.
We finally reached a wide meadow surrounded by mighty Himalayan peaks an almost all sides. Every group of travelers spent sometime in the meadow before moving on further towards the monastery. The entire surface of the region was covered with brownish-yellow grass, dotted with boulders here and there. On every side, just beyond the reach of the meadow, the mountains rose. The place looked like an amphitheater.
Many of the travelers (including our guide and porter) spread out and lied down over the ground to take a deep breadth and relax in the basking sunshine lit meadow. I rotated my head for a full 360 degree only to be awestruck by the views we were presented with. Mt Manaslu stood right before us and presented itself from an entirely different angle than what we saw from Samagaun.
Dhananjoy asked the guide and some of the other members of the group to take his snap in the backdrop of each and every visible mountain peak, with Mt Manaslu getting a special attention. It went to an extent that we started pulling his leg by asking him to give the mountains some respite rather than making them act as backdrops for his snaps!
While having our photo shoots, we took a decision not to move ahead further since the monastery was still far ahead, but the best possible views are available from this meadow and moving any further won’t necessarily imply having any better. It was already 11 AM and the descent would take us another two hours at least. Regardless of how bright the sunshine was, it can be deceiving and it’s advisable to get out of the high reaches before noon as afternoons typically bring bad weather with them. Hence, we turned around and headed down. When we reached the gate of the monastery lower down, we encountered a stream which now flowed right across the trail. It wasn’t there on our way up. Evidently, the rising power of the shining sun has started melting the glaciers higher up and the stream gained momentum. It wasn’t comfortable treading down the steep trails made slippery by the flowing stream. Chances of skidding increased manifold. We had to be careful with our steps, especially at the hairpin bends. I became more conscious keeping a strict vigil on my stepping.
It continued till we reached the vicinity of the treeline, beyond which, the slopes eased out and walking was much more comfortable amidst the trees. After about one and a half hour, we reached the diversion point where the trail met with the main Manaslu circuit and we turned to our left and headed towards the Samagaun village. By that time, many of the peaks got eclipsed by rising clouds from lower reaches, a typical phenomenon in these parts of the Himalayas.
We walked down by the now familiar fields and alleys of the Samagaun village and reached our tea house and were greeted with a pleasant surprise. The day before when we reached Samagaun, we wanted to occupy the rooms besides the terrace, but couldn’t do so. Now, we were being offered the rooms of our choice as some of the travelers left the tea house for their next destination. We had our lunch amidst sunshine on the terrace, the staple Nepalese diet of “Daal Bhaat” (rice, with lentils and vegetables). Ranjan da brought out his jar of pickles and we had an enjoyable lunch. In the afternoon, some of the porters from different groups assembled in an ad-hoc session of Nepalese folk music. Some of them gave magnificent renditions. We were awestruck. These people spend most of their lives carrying heavy loads on their backs for different trekking expeditions up and down these unforgiving trails. But that hasn’t taken down their taste for music which continues to thrive amidst abject poverty. The sun started setting behind the twin peaks of Mt Manaslu firing up the outlines of the peak but we were devoid of the colors which were playing out for certain on the other side of the mountains that weren’t visible from Samagaun. Nevertheless, the fading sunlight painted the entire village, its houses and fields in light crimson. Shadows got longer and the tunes from the Nepalese porters made the evening wonderful. The evening tea got served. After darkness, we headed towards the dining area and brought out our pack of cards, a usual routine that we’ve been following. After dinner, we headed to our respective rooms. Our stay at Samagaun was coming to an end. The next day would take us to Samdo, the next destination. We were briefed by our guide that the walk to Samdo would be short and pleasant and we should reach there before lunch. Samdo is the last destination before Dharamshala, the base of Larke Pass. We were approaching towards culmination of the trek. That gave a sense of eagerness, but at the same time, a tinge of sadness about the impending end of our journey. With that mixed feeling, we subsided under the blankets.
As mentioned before, I had two alarms set for every morning. When the first one went off at 4 AM, it was still dark. It normally was also the time of deep sleep & was a challenge to get oneself out of the comfort of a warm blanket, especially when chilling cold awaits you outside. Washrooms were normally in the common areas & in order to reach there, one had to traverse the balcony (often a considerable distance) piercing through the darkness & cold. The next challenge used to be the first contact of water with the body (getting increasingly harder with rising altitude). Once the tasks got over, it gave me much relief to re-enter the blanket after arousing my room mate Ranjan da. While he used to get started with the daily duties, I enjoyed my 2nd phase of sleep till 6 AM, marked by the second alarm. My stay at Lho was no exception to this routine. When I woke up finally, daylight was just starting to enter the valley. The sky was just starting to light up but the outlines of the surrounding mountains were still dark. It was darker than usual as clouds still hovered over the mountain tops cutting off the peaks from the view.
After the morning tea session, as we headed to the dining space, it was already bustling with activities from different travelers from different parts of the world, a lot of them were now familiar faces to us. A German couple were travelling with us, i.e. to say they were putting up in the same tea houses as ours. They both were above 60 years in their ages but could give us a shame when it came to walking. Everyday they started at least 45 mins later than us, overtook on the way to reach the destination at least 2 hours ahead of us. They came to the Manaslu area after visiting Langtang, a region to the north of Kathmandu. The alternating diets of muesli & corn flakes at the breakfast table kept adding to the monotony of the taste but we continued to force them down our throats. Dhananjoy kept away from these as he had problems digesting milk, which is an important solvent for these items. After breakfast as we ventured out into the lawn, sky started clearing up. The lower reaches of the snow peaks became visible. We could clearly see the glaciers coming down their slopes.
Clouds kept clinging on to their tops as the solar rays tried to force their ways through. They finally started to disperse from there and the famous double edged peaks of Mt Manaslu made their appearance. They rose right behind the hill which housed the Lho monastery. It appeared as if the monastery had been comfortably placed along the snow laden slopes of Mt Manaslu.
The mountains now bathed in bright morning sunshine which added a hue of gold to the surrounding fields with rich & ripe harvest. The dark green & golden yellow colored coniferous trees along the mountain slopes looked ever refreshing after bathing in the early morning mist.
After leaving the tea house, the trail zig-zagged through the village fields & local houses. After crossing the exit gate, the trail entered the woods and started moving up the slopes. Manaslu occupied the northern skies as if keeping a vigil over the valley. Gradually, other neighboring peaks began to appear. We reached a place where we stood along the edges of a valley. The northern horizon was wide open & the majority of the sky was occupied by the double edged peaks of Manaslu. To the right of it, stood Manaslu North. The valley below was covered with thick woods.
In was a perfect backdrop for some group photography & we took our turns to capture the beauty. A small descent followed by a crossover via a suspension bridge took us to the other bank if the river & we followed a gradual ascent.
The river gorge, for a change, wasn’t as deep as we found earlier in the lower regions, a sign of gaining altitude. But the torrent was as vociferous as before. Waterfalls continued to come down the surrounding slopes to join the river. At one place we crossed a wooden bridge over a thundering torrent. The bridge provided a good platform, standing on which one could get a view through the ‘V’ formed by the slopes of the surrounding hills, at the end of which a dazzling snow peak strutted out against the pastel blue sky. A tailor-made post card view.
We spent significant time at the spot. After the bridge, the trail moved on till a point where the route was obstructed by a wooden fence. At a first glance, it appeared as though we were headed the wrong way & we looked here & there hoping to find an alternate route. There were none & the only way was to cross over the fence. We couldn’t fathom what could have prompted someone to put up a fence right across the road. A look beyond the fence gave us the answer. A herd of yaks were grazing hither & thither, some even venturing high up on the slopes. The fence was meant to keep the herd together acting as a boundary to some sort of a local sanctuary for the animals. The bells fastened to their necks kept tinkling as they kept grazing.We carefully made our way through them & continued our ascent. The trail had a canopy cover but we could see through them to get the glimpses of the snowy walls of the mountains.
After continuing for some more time we came out in the open. It was a flat top. Multiple tea houses surrounded us & just beyond their fences, stood the majestic snow peaks with their tops & slopes bathing in bright sunshine. One could turn his head around for a full 360 degrees and his view would be obstructed on each side by snow fields & glaciers coming down the slopes of the surrounding mountains.
We were standing at Syala. People who stayed overnight, must have been awarded with a magical sunrise. We envied the other group whom we met on our way to Lho, for their decision to stay at Syala. We just kept revolving our heads, with our eyes peeping through the lenses of our cameras.
The weather was exquisite & we basked in the sun. Dhananjoy kept requesting others to take snaps of him against the backdrop of almost every mountain around. The photographer had to keep shifting his position while Dhananjoy was able to maintain his own by just turning around in small angles. Apart from Manaslu and Manaslu North, others like Ngadi Chuli, Himal Chuli and Ganesh Himal also had to do their part in providing backdrops for the numerous snaps that we took of each other.
We could have continued further, but our guide reminded us that there was another half of the route to be covered and so we moved on. The entire village of Syala, its houses, the monasteries, all places had to offer exquisite views of the surrounding mountains. The route went through the tea houses, all of which appeared to be “the place to stay” and reached a suspension bridge. We noticed a difference in the tree line. Their heights were less than what we saw in the lower reaches and so was their density.
The colors of the leaves too, showed greater diversity (as opposed to primarily deep green in the lower reaches). These were signs of higher altitudes. After crossing over to the other side, we kept walking along till we reached the entry gate (a common feature of Tibetan villages at higher altitudes) of Samagaun. But beyond the gate, there were vast fields where yaks grazed around lazily. The entire landscape, mainly its lower reaches were scattered by black and brown moving dots which represented yaks.
It was wide valley and our route went through the middle of it. Far beyond the fields, the houses, monasteries and the tea houses of Samagaun made their appearance. As always, sight of your destination generates energy, though in this case, we knew it would take us at least an hour more to reach the tea houses.
After crossing the fields, we entered the main village and were greeted by another team who reached before us. It was the team that stayed on at Syala. The houses of Samagaun bore the stamp of hardship and toughness that form part of the lives of people who inhabit the place.
Women kept walking along carrying loads of wood on their backs and children peeped at us from behind the windows of their homes with innocent amazement. Their red cheeks had patches of dirt but their eyes made it evident that the dirt was entirely physical.
When we finally arrived at the tea house, it was about 2 PM. The location of the tea house was exquisite. It was right at the feet of a hill beyond which Mt Manaslu strutted its head in its majestic form, the classic double edged view. We had lunch in an open balcony basking in the bright sunshine. At the first glance, it was apparent, this was the place to shoot the classic sunrise view of Mt Manaslu. We consulted a senior guide about our options for the extra acclimatization day. The options ranged between Pungyen Gompa, Virendra Taal and Manaslu Base Camp. We initially wanted to go for the last option, but the senior guide suggested against doing so. The trail was risky, very narrow at some places and hence, fraught with danger. Based on his suggestion, we opted for Virendra Taal, a small glacial lake nearby for the afternoon and Pungyen gompa, a monastery up on the mountains, about two and half hours away, a place for potentially great views of Manaslu. That was for the morrow. After lunch, we headed towards Virendra Taal. The route went up towards the local monastery. After going around it, we entered a field which led to the base of a trail that moved gradually up towards Virendra Taal. Virendra Taal is a small fresh water lake located just below the Manaslu glacier. When we reached there, the afternoon sun cast its glow on its fresh waters. Strong breeze raised ripples on its surface.
Glaciers hung almost to the level of its banks. We stood on the edge of a hill from where a slope went down towards the banks of the lake. It was dotted with memorials built from stones, a sign of respect for the deceased. They seemed to rest in peace on the banks of the lake or so is the intention.
After about 30-45 minutes, we headed back to our tea house and settled in our rooms. Reaching Samagaun brought us to the height of 3530 m. It marks an important milestone on this trek. Beyond Samagaun, one could say, is the start of ascent towards Larke Pass. Samagaun is probably the largest village in the upper reaches of this circuit and forms the base of all ascents to Mt Manaslu. The fields of Samagaun sees significant cultivation considering the circumstances. Samagaun also is probably the last place to see trees as the land of barren rocks starts from here. Shrubs and bushes continue to Samdo, beyond which they give way to boulders which takes one to DharamShala, the place of stay before the pass. After which, boulders and snow reign supreme and one can hope of reaching within the tree line only after crossing the pass to move over to the Manang district. We made phone calls to our respective homes and then settled under the blankets.
The morning was pleasant at Namrung. Not just because the sun was out, but also a sense of relief prevailed. The day’s walk was just supposed to last for about five hours. We should reach Lho no later than 2 PM, probably even earlier. If weather stays fine, Lho should offer the first view of the coveted Mt Manaslu. At the breakfast table, we were having a chat with the owner of the tea house. They were inhabitants of a village from the lower reaches of the Gorkha district. Their stay at the tea house was entirely seasonal and coincided with the trekking season, i.e. from March to May & again from October to November. They were Buddhists by faith and had already visited the shrines of Bodh Gaya and the monasteries of Sikkim, the state of North Eastern India. When we reached Namrung, the previous evening, I somehow felt at home & was comfortable about reaching a shelter at the end of an arduous day of trekking. The fact that we had an entire evening to rest, gave me peace. I had the same feeling at Jagat. Probably, the neat & cosy rooms had a part to play. The fact that the comfort was only for one evening didn’t stop us from enjoying the warmth of our stay. It was business as usual the next morning. The same tea session, same diet at the breakfast table, a quick brain dump from our guide about the day’s itinerary, the group snap at the lawn of the tea house, strapping of our backpacks & off we went for our next destination.
The route beyond the village of Namrung led us to the barley fields where the villagers were at work. The winds sailed through the fields creating ripples along the crop ready for harvest. In one of the fields, ladies were at work. Big baskets lay beside them. Faces of their new born kids popped out from the basket. They were obedient enough to stick to the confines of the basket, casting their gaze towards just about anything. Their mothers were busy harvesting the crop, but simultaneously kept a strict vigil on them. Solitary houses stood upright amid the vast fields.
The sky started to get overcast as clouds closed in. The mountain peaks hid behind them but traces of snow in their lower reaches acted as reminders of their presence. Another group of trekkers crossed us and their guide struck a cord with Dhananjoy. They were headed to Syala, a village about two hours beyond Lho. That’s one of the beauties of Nepal. There’s no compulsion to halt at “well known” places. The presence of multiple villages along the route, all equipped with tea houses (though their numbers vary), allows for a customized itinerary according to your choice & energy. Children from local villages were roaming around and we obliged them with lozenges.
They had red cheeks with hands and legs smudged with mud. They kept looking at us with wonder. “Where do they come from and what are they doing in our villages?” – was written in their expressions. Their parents wished us “Tashi Delek” from window panes of nearby houses and we reciprocated back. The fields reached right up to the other end of the valley, beyond which lay the river and the hills rose from the other side of it with their slopes covered with coniferous forests. As we moved amid the fields, we saw some of the houses deserted, an indication that their inhabitants had already moved down the valley to the lower reaches, a typical migration at the onset of winters.
The sun came out and poured its golden rays on the seemingly never ending fields, adding a touch of gold. Strong winds created ripples among the ripe crop awaiting a harvest. The vegetation along the slopes of the hills on both sides started having tinges of brown and at times, red. The colors of the leaves were starting to change, a phenomenon that is commonly known as “fall colors” in some of the North American countries. These signs told us that we were gaining altitude while moving from lower sub tropical forests to upper temperate forests. The dense green canopy was gradually giving way to relatively sparse coniferous vegetation. After sometime we reached another milestone that read Bhanjam (2650 m).
We saw a lot of new tea houses coming up along the entire route, some even bore the smell of fresh wood and polish. That indicated growing popularity of the trail among trekkers, but also a potential of overcrowding as has been the fate of the more “famed” ones like Annapurna or Everest. One important difference was relatively low number of helicopter voyages and the sound of their rotors. We heard some of them near Jagat, which has a helipad but not beyond. They are much more prevalent on the routes to Annapurna or Everest base camps with the former having a full helicopter tour right up to its base camp. The snow capped mountains still hid behind the clouds, though the lower reaches of the valley had abundant sunshine. We had enough time at our disposal and kept scouting for photography subjects as we knew even with these delays, we’d be able to reach Lho by lunch time, a welcome change in the itinerary that would continue till Dharamsala. The trail was more or less level which we enjoyed walking through the fields and the valley.
The route meandered through the local villages. Sometimes beside the fields, the monasteries, the mani stones and of course besides the river. Colors of vegetation, in the meantime, increased in their variety. Gradually, we started to see the lower reaches of the glaciers of the snow peaks nearby, but their tops were still covered with clouds.
After a long time, we saw a few houses right at the top of a distant hill and our guide stated that it was the Lho monastery. It was at a considerable height and we had to look up to it. We started to prepare in our minds for a long and steep climb but our guide assured us, that the Lho village and all its tea houses lay at the base of that hill and hence, would require us to climb. However, we could still visit the monastery and have a bird’s eye view of the valley we just came across, if we wanted to, after a hike to that location after lunch. Dhananjoy, as usual, was excited about that prospect, but I preferred not to commit myself and take the decision after lunch, which was still a long way ahead as we’ve just “seen” from a distance and not yet “reached” the houses of Lho . The act of seeing and reaching a destination, especially in these mountains, has a lot of difference, especially to us, the mortals from plains.
Lho is a relatively large village and has a number of tea houses. It is the most common stop over before SamaGaun, though some trekkers prefer to continue ahead after lunch to stay ahead, in order to gain some ground before reaching Samagaun (as one of the other groups did, as I mentioned before). We preferred not to, as there’s no way we could skip the halt and an extra day of acclimatization at Samagaun, so there wasn’t any point to hurry. Furthermore, Lho offers the first views of Mt Manaslu on this trail. While clouds kept it at bay, but we were hopeful of having a glimpse of the famed peak, the next morning, before leaving for Samagaun. After crossing a few more bends, we finally arrived at our destined tea house “Majestic Manaslu”.
A first glance at the tea house elevated our spirits. It had a well decorated lawn with well maintained gardens that spread out in front as well as the back. It had its own fields where they grew some of the vegetables. The rooms too, looked good and most importantly, especially after our experience at Namrung, it had warm blankets.
By this time, the sun, once again hid behind the clouds and strong winds started to blow and with it, brought in a light drizzle. We were chilled to our bones and quickly entered the dining space which was covered with glass on all sides and had a fire place in the middle where dried yak dungs provided the fuel and the smoke got drifted out by a chimney strutting its head above the place. It reminded me of the tea houses on the route to Everest base camp. It was a good place to hang around after lunch and I lost my interest to hike to the Lho monastery, another 2 hours to go up and come down. Dhananjoy retained his energy and went ahead with Niladri, who primarily went to provide company. It was only 2 PM and we had the entire afternoon with us. Ranjan da preferred to have a nap and went to the room while I hanged around in the dining space watching the surroundings or the other groups sitting in other tables. Some played cards, some others kept swiping through their snaps in their cameras or mobile devices. We were almost half way through our trek as the next day would see us reaching Samagaun, which is approximately half way through the trail and takes one to almost the base of Mt Manaslu.
The hills in and around Lho were covered with coniferous forests and every third tree bore a brownish yellow color making the overall canvas wonderful. I spent some of the time shaving as the temperature of the flowing water was somewhat bearable. That gave a feeling of weight loss from my chin as the last of these acts were performed at Kathmandu. Dhananjoy and Niladri came down from their hike in the evening. They had some good views from the top but not as good as they hoped for, thanks to the clouds.
Soon after their arrival, darkness engulfed the valley. It appeared as if evening was waiting outside the door and the moment one opened it, it came rushing in and with it, the biting cold. Given the fire place was turned on, I went up to my room and brought down the wet clothes and hung them on chairs around the fire place. We started playing cards but one of my eyes was on my clothes and I kept checking their moistness which wasn’t keen to go. After somewhat of a consolation, I turned them around to give the other side a chance to get dry. However, it turned out that I’d have to rely on the next day’s sun (as I’d been doing so far) for rest of the process as the fuel in the fire place started dwindling and tea house owners weren’t keen to replenish. After Jagat, we also had another chance to call our homes using locally bought WiFi cards. Exchange of news brought some comfort at both the ends. We kept playing cards till dinner got served. The lecture from the guide about the plan for the next day revealed that the walk up to Samagaun would be similar – i.e. we’d be able to reach by lunch and hence, would have the the later half to visit Birendra tal, a small glacial lake which could be reached after a small hike from Samagaun. The next day at Samagan was still an open question. We had the options to visit Manaslu base camp or to visit Pungyen gompa, a decision we deferred till we reached there. After dinner, we loaded our bottles with warm water and headed to our rooms. We would be sleeping at 3180 m.
The alarm kicked off at 4 AM. As soon as my eyes opened, the thoughts about the landslide area near Namrung came back to haunt me. I completed my morning duties and went inside the blanket once again. It was only after the second alarm at 5 AM, I’d get started to prepare myself. That was the norm I followed throughout the trail. Today’s walk was going to be the last of the long ones before crossing the pass. Apparently, the stretch after that would involve walking just 4-5 hours a day. That was to say, we’d only be walking during the pre-lunch session and would have the rest of the day at our disposal after reaching our destination. But for that to happen, we’d have to complete the long walk to Namrung, about 19.4 kms and of course, get over the landslide area just before the entrance of Namrung. Oh the landslide! It just refuses to get off my mind. After others got ready and we readied our bags for the porters, the morning tea session ensued. At the breakfast table, some of us stuck to muesli, some went for corn flakes. All of them accompanied by hot milk and slices of apple. It had already started to get boring, but given the circumstances, we couldn’t have asked for better. Dhananjoy didn’t prefer milk, so he had to opt for noodles (forcing muesli or corn flakes down the throat without an appropriate and hot solvent is impossible). Taste wasn’t as important as getting some stuff inside our bodies to generate energy for us to be able to sustain till lunch. After that, the staple “dal-bhat” would take care for the post-lunch session of walking. The plan was to have lunch at the village of Ghap.
Dhananjoy always insisted on having a group snap at the lodge before leaving. So we assembled along with our guide and porters for a snap and hit the trail. Clouds stayed away but the high mountains prevented sunshine from entering the valley. The weather had a chill and we put our jackets on. As usual, I had the sweat shirt from my previous day, hanging on my back for the sun to dry it up. The trail meandered through the homes and fields of the local village and we crossed the exit gate of Deng. Vegetation was still thick on both sides. That told us, we were still travelling through the lower sub-tropical zones.
We moved up along the banks of Budhi Gandaki, which made its way down through the lush green gorges. As I walked along, I kept thinking about the trail. Reaching Namrung would mark the end of the first phase of the trek. Beyond that, days of lengthy walk would get over, at least till Dharamshala. The successive days will take us to the higher reaches and importantly, Manaslu would oblige us with its appearance. We have left the villages inhabited by the Gurung behind and now, Tibetan settlements frequented the route. So did the Mani walls, entrance and exit gates created by stacking up stones. The concept of these gates which are often decorated by flags with Tibetan mantras inscribed on them, are meant to ward off the evils. Such gates are often decorated with paintings. The faintness in their colors are signs of the harsh winters they have to withstand every year.
As the valley widened, sunshine made its way into it and we had to peel off our jackets. We kept sipping water from our respective bottles, an important act to keep high altitude sickness at bay. One of the reasons of covering an average of 20 kms/day during the first 3/4 days was low altitude, a feat that can’t be repeated in the higher reaches of the trail.
We kept an eye on the signboards scattered along the trail to lookout for the time left to reach Ghap, our destination for lunch. The trail, meanwhile kept moving up and down. On the way down, the lungs get some rest, but the knees bear the weight. They’re the most unfortunate organs on such trails. Whether the trail moves up or down, there’s no respite for them. Whenever we moved down, my mind kept telling we were incurring a debt which we’d have to repay sooner or later. Moving down, often meant, going towards the banks of the river, only to cross over an embark on a steep hike on the other side. The mountain walls around us were covered with pine and bamboo forests with flowers showing up amid the greens.
Just before Ghap, the trail started moving down through the maze of local houses and fields till we entered the entrance gate. After another stretch of 1-1.5 km, we reached a tea house to have our lunch. As lunch was being prepared, we removed our backpacks and made ourselves comfortable in chairs amid bright sunshine. Some of us even dozed off with the pleasant warmth of the sun on our backs.
As we were settling in the tea house, other groups were moving out. I tried to utilize the sunshine to dry the clothes. As lunch got served, Ranjan da pulled out his bottle of pickle. The lentils, the boiled local vegetables, the green chilies added to the taste. After lunch, the rucksacks reclaimed their place on our backs and we moved on. The trail after Ghap led to the river and we crossed to the other side of it where the climb started again.
We entered a forest of big firs. The dense forest kept the sunshine out. At this time of the day, it was helpful as we could walk under shade. We continued to encounter herds of mules. On one occasion, we had to subside under a cave to make way for them. Just beyond the cave, there was a set of steps which had to be crossed. We kept hearing the bells of the mules coming from the opposite direction. We couldn’t see them until they reached the top of the steps. It was a large herd. We kept watching as the head of a mule made it’s appearance at the top. It spent sometime there trying to ascertain the steepness of the descent and then came hopping down followed by another one repeating the same steps. We had to wait for at least 15 to 20 minutes to allow the entire herd to cross over. We waited for some more time to ensure there were no further sounds of bells. Wild flowers adorned the forests.
We kept moving on the ground which was somewhat level. Our pace increased. Some of us kept focusing on objects of photography as there were plenty of subjects around. Wild flowers, dense forests, wild fruits. As I was moving ahead, I got a call from behind from our guide. I saw him looking at a tree with bunches of wild fruits, red in color. Others followed suit. He told us that they were wild litchis.
He asked us to try some. I popped one into my mouth, but wasn’t ecstatic about the taste. Others tried too, but their expressions didn’t exude much confidence either. The trail moved amid the forest till we reached another suspension bridge. We had to cross over a roaring torrent coming down the slopes to meet Budhi Gandaki. After reaching the middle point of the bridge, I tried to take some snaps, but it started to oscillate violently. I noticed that a herd of mules had started to cross over and were about to reach my place. I had to dump the idea of photography, move to the other side as quickly as possible to reach a place wide enough to grant passage to them.
The trail meandered through the forest till we reached a point where I saw some of the trekkers assembled at a point looking ahead as if to take stock of the route that lay ahead. It was the landslide area. I reached behind one of them and peeped over to have a look. As if the trail had been broken suddenly by sliding rocks that had come down the slopes. The entire slope on the left was bereft of any vegetation. As if someone pricked somewhere high above with enough strength and a huge swathe of land had shifted its base to move down in its entirety. The trail in that stretch meant nothing more than a pair of steps moving through the landmass which was still somewhat unstable with pebbles and gravels coming down the slope from high above. Porters and other trekkers moved swiftly through the area almost running over to the side beyond the stretch, which was again normal and secured by thick vegetation in the surrounding slopes. I thought of waiting for my guide for him to lend a hand, but decided against it. I stepped on to the stretch and tried to walk as normally as possible, i.e. to say by not putting extra stress on my feet which has contributed to circumspect steps and small avalanches of pebbles earlier. I crossed the distance of about 1.5 km as quickly as possible, giving just one glance towards the top on my left mid-way and as soon as I crossed over to safe grounds, I breathed a sigh of relief! The relief was also caused by the sight of the entrance gate of Namrung.
An old lady was selling home baked cakes, pastries and chocolates at the gate and many trekkers surrounded her to get a taste of the local bakery. We moved ahead towards our destined tea house. It was a pleasant relieved walk on level ground and we leisurely moved on. After we were allotted our rooms, we settled in. Dhananjoy went for a shower (yes, in cold waters). Our usual evening tea session ensued till the dinner time. The biting cold reminded us of the altitude we we had gained. We hoped to buy WiFi cards to talk to our respective homes, but it didn’t work. We submitted all our devices (phones, camera chargers, power banks etc.) to the tea house owner to get them charged at the dining place (the rooms didn’t have extra sockets, quite normal in these remote areas). Thankfully, he didn’t charge us for that (usually, an hour of charging costs 300-400 in Nepalese currency or even more depending on the altitude). When we saw the blankets, our hearts sank. They were just normal blankets which we use in places like Delhi. Apparently, the tea house was in its inaugural season and wasn’t equipped well enough as others. We kept all of our warm wares on as we went under the blankets, but it still proved to be futile and sleep eluded us through a large part of the night. We were sleeping at 2630 m. It suddenly struck me that Lukla, the starting point of the Everest Base Camp trek, was at 2860 m. So, after walking approximately 20 kms a day for four days we reached a height, which was only comparable (but still less than) the height of the starting point of the Everest Base Camp trek.
After breakfast, we started to move. The trail initially went through the alleys between the lodges and after sometime, it came out in the open. The valley was wide with Budhi Gandaki making its way down through the center of its floor. After a gradual hike, we came upon a flat ground with a big “H” painted at the center against a backdrop of a colored circle. It was a helipad.
Our guide assembled us together to say something about the upcoming stretch. A very narrow rocky path lay ahead of us with just enough space for a single person to place his steps. Just beside it, the vertical wall went straight down to meet the roaring river. The entire stretch was approximately 1.5 – 2 kms. The floor too, was unstable with loosely placed rocks and gravels. Chances of skidding were ripe. It was our first encounter with one of the numerous rockfall zones of this trail. The guide advised rest of the group to move ahead one after another, but not in parallel and he stayed with me in the rear to provide support. I wasn’t necessary for him to say “I can take care of one and only one person, but not all. So, be careful with your steps and try to cross the zone as fast as possible. Please don’t waste time in photography here”. It was quite obvious as one look at the stretch said it all. Rest of the group moved ahead one by one and finally I stepped on the stretch with the guide keeping a tight vigil from behind. Every step triggered small to medium avalanches of pebbles and boulders down the vertical wall below. I became very conscious about my steps and a bit more than necessary. I tried to enforce grip by pressing my boots hard on the floor, which only made it riskier as with that extra pressure, the stones and pebbles got displaced even more. I kept praying that we don’t encounter herds of mules and kept my ear alert for the sound of bells that usually accompany them. After missing a step here and there, triggering small to medium avalanches of stones, I finally managed to cross the stretch to come down to the banks of the river.
After some photo sessions on the river bank, we kept plodding on. Our next target was to reach Philim. For a trail as long as this, I normally tend to divide it and set interim targets. That gives a sense of progress. After Jagat, Mani walls and Stupas started appearing. Every village had an entrance and exit gate that were decorated with carefully placed stones and their ceilings were adorned by paintings. A typical sign of Tibetan settlements.
Every village we crossed, invariably had a board displaying an arrow towards the direction of Larke Pass. We were passing through a gorge surrounded by high mountains on both sides. That was the reason sunshine eluded us although we could see the upper reaches illuminated. Mountain peaks started making their appearances for the first time in this trail as we were nearing Salleri.
Salleri was a village of considerable size considering its remoteness. It bore the signs of a Tibetan settlement in all its features. The dress of the women, the jewelry of stones wore by them, the Mani wheels cleverly placed among running torrents to make them turn continuously without human effort, technology making its way into the Spiritual world! Kids with round fair faces with red cheeks and running noses came running and we obliged them with lozenges. Our wishes of “Tashi Delek” were reciprocated by them with joviality. Since the village was placed in a wide section of the valley, it bathed in bright sunshine. We had to remove our jackets. Torrents came running down and were being channelized through the fields.
After Salleri, a suspension bridge took us to other side of the river where a moderate climb began towards Philim.
After reaching the other side of the bridge, as we started our ascent towards Philim, we came across a young woman who spoke fluent Hindi, making us think that she was an Indian. It turned out that she was from Pokhara and was an air hostess serving in an international airline. She’s embarking on this trail as a side excursion amidst her vacation. We exchanged pleasantries and she asked us whether India too, offered such Himalayan trails. Our answer was, it certainly did, but not with the kind of support that is available in Nepal. Moreover, the number of trails in Nepal is proportionately larger, given that it almost houses one-third of the entire Himalayas. The presence of a large number of 8000 m peaks, also adds to the glamour. The trail somewhat leveled out after Philim and it was a pleasant walk amidst sunshine. The Budhi Gandaki kept company making its way down through the valley below. Waterfalls kept coming down the walls in a rush to meet the river. We were awestruck by one of them which had a beautiful rainbow created in front of it by the refracting sunlight through its water crystals. We spent minutes watching this amazing creation of nature.
After crossing Philim, our next target was Eklabhatti, a place, where many people halt for lunch. Our guide and the porters insisted on that too. But, our plan was to have lunch at Nyak Phedi. The idea behind that was, it would just leave about 2 hours to walk after lunch before reaching the day’s destination, Deng. As a compromise, we allowed the porters some rest and to have some mild breakfast while we kept moving. But as it turned out later, it proved to be tough and we wished we had lunch earlier. It was painful, in particular, for our porters. People in Nepal are accustomed to having early lunch. They have frequent meals during the day and hence, for them, it is painful to have long spells without food, especially with wrenching loads on their back. It proved tough on us too as we felt the fatigue building up.
Eklabhatti too, had an entrance gate, carefully created by stacking up stones to welcome the entrants.
Waterfalls kept coming down the walls. We encountered a few more on our way from Eklabhatti to Nyak Phedi.
The vegetation along the mountain walls were lush green with the blue waters of Budhi Gandaki making its way through the valley. There were many angles at which we stopped to have views of this picturesque landscape.
After Eklabhatti, the trail started moving down towards the river. It’s a familiar sign. It implied that we would be crossing the river to encounter a steep slope on its other bank. We came across a junction with two directions pointing towards two different routes. The one on the right was the trail to Tsum valley. It is a picturesque valley and the trek towards it offers exciting views and experience with local culture. It takes an additional 2-3 days to cover Tsum valley as a side excursion. Some trekkers moved ahead towards it as did herds of mules. We kept to left and kept moving down towards the river. The slope after the suspension bridge was very steep. Dhananjoy was already ahead of us and was out of sight. We could see the zig-zag trail going up the slopes with steep jumps. We took some rest before embarking on the climb, gulped down a few sips of water and started. The trail moved steeply up through a bunch of switchbacks. While crossing one at its lower end, we could see people on its higher reaches. All seemed to move in a serpentine queue as one sees in an airport emigration desk. The only difference being the ground, which is flat at the airport. Fatigue started to tell on us but we kept dragging on. This wasn’t a very good sign. The reason behind this was the long gap we had between breakfast and lunch, something the porters tried to convince us about, back in Eklabhatti. After reaching the top of the switchback trail, we came across a board. An arrow pointed up towards Nyak (claiming to be 2.5 hours way). Another pointed horizontally, but had a different name. We were confused. We were supposed to have lunch an Nyak, but the distance was way beyond our expectation. Our guide was somewhere down in the rear. Our wrath fell on Dhananjoy. Why couldn’t he wait for the rest? At least he should have waited at a junction like this where misadventures on a wrong trail can prove costly. After sometime, the guide made his appearance from behind and cleared our confusion. Nyak village is indeed, up the slopes, but, fortunately, we were headed to Nyak Phedi, which lay in the horizontal direction. We breathed a sigh of relief and forgave Dhananjoy and moved along.
We entered a tea house, totally tired with dreary steps with mice jumping up and down in our bellies. Dhananjoy was already there, enjoying some rest in the sunshine. We waited at the lunch table while our staple lunch of “dal bhat” was getting prepared. As soon as it was served, we jumped upon it. Vegetable curries and green chilies added to the appetite and we consumed in large quantities, probably a little more than desired, considering the length of the trail we had to cover after it. As we chatted around, our legs got some rest. After that, we hit the trail once again. This time around, with relatively fresh pair of legs. The route now moved through dense forests and we walked under canopy cover, which is always preferred after lunch. I kept an eye towards the sky to see any impending bad weather. Fortunately, clouds stayed clear and sunshine was abundant. As we walked along, herds of mules kept crossing us from both directions and we had to pave way for them. Reaching a safe place to be able to do that well before their arrival, proved to be a challenge for us at times. I was thinking what could be the last village on this route, beyond which, mules couldn’t reach. I hoped we don’t have to encounter them at the Larke Pass. My assessment was we were to encounter them till Dharamshala, the last destination before the pass on this side and we might encounter them again from the first village on our way down from the pass, all through the remaining part of the route. I kept thinking about different things as I moved along, till we reached a bend from where we could see the entrance gate of Deng. That gave some energy and I completed the last climb to cross the gate. Dhananjoy insisted on having a group snap and I agreed reluctantly, but my entire focus was to reach the tea house. After reaching Deng, we finally settled in our allotted rooms. Clothes, as usual were drenched and we hung them in the wires, just to console ourselves. After changing the warm-wears, the evening tea session ensued. The sequence of events at the tea houses were very predictable. Tea sessions took us to about 6.30 PM. 7 PM was the time for dinner. After dinner, there was the customary lecture of the guide about the plan for the morrow, followed by sips of warm water before we subsided to our beds. It wasn’t different at Deng too. The only prick in my mind was introduced by a statement from the guide, during his planning session. There was a land slide area just before entering Namrung, our next destination. That had to be negotiated carefully. He repeated the same set of instructions as he did in the morning before crossing the rockfall zone immediately after Jagat. That kept the niggle on in my mind and I started imagining ways to negotiate it. “Hold the stick hard, focus on your feet, do keep an eye up the hill to watch for falling rocks …” etc etc till sleep overpowered me. We were sleeping at 1800 m.
Previous night, our guide briefed us about the day’s plan at the dinner table. His English is difficult to follow and he doesn’t know Hindi. It proved challenging for us to follow his words, but as the trek went through, we got used to him. The plan for the day was to walk up to Machhakhola, the next destination on the route. This was the first day of trekking. I finished the breakfast with corn flakes and milk, while others had pancakes or muesli. It was time to stripe up our respective backpacks and get going. Everybody carried two bottles of lukewarm water with them. The bags were ready, accounts were squared up at the tea house, the sticks were in our hands and we were ready to hit the trail.
We strode past other lodges and the trail moved gradually upwards. Mist rose from the valley and surrounded us.
It was cold to start with and we had our jackets on. However, as the sun came out and slopes headed up, we felt the warmth and had to peel off. Niladri in fact stripped down to his half pant, a trend that would continue for the days we were on the lower reaches of the trail. The Budhi Gandaki roared down the gorge and kept its presence felt with the continuous sound of its torrents. The early morning mist gave way to bright sunshine with clear skies. Walking was a treat in such surroundings. The slope was gentle, the sunshine was bright. The lush green forests were soothing to our eyes. The trail was still wide enough and there were tracts of tyres clearly visible to us, indicating that Sotikhola was not the last destination accessible by vehicles. I recalled Tej Gurung’s words last year during our Annapurna trek. “Visit Manaslu before road construction erases the trail!”. Sings were now visible that over the years to come, days of walking will continue to get trimmed off with the advancement of road. We were told that a road was being constructed from Machhakhola to Larkya La (the highest point on this trail), meaning a large section of the circuit trail will become redundant in the coming years. The future of the tea houses will also be impacted. Similar fate has been witnessed on the Annapurna Circuit trail, which now requires just 2-3 days of walking. Tea houses at the lower reaches have been made largely redundant as trekkers can now directly reach Manang by road.
Villages were nestled amidst the high slopes of the mountains. Houses were surrounded by terraced fields. Villagers were at work in the fields. Some kids passed by on their way to local school. We carried lozenges with us and were generous about distributing them to the kids whom we met on our way.
Waterfalls kept coming down the slopes. Some even crossed our ways. We had to be careful while crossing them. Though the torrents were not fast, but they were deep and we had to cross them by placing our feet over the precariously placed rocks that dotted the streams.
The first four days of the trek were supposed to be long, approximately 18-19 kms a day. Today was the start of it. With the weather playing fine, people kept their camera shutters rolling, but we also had to keep an eye on the time. Our past experiences in the Himalayas told us that the fine weather may not last in the second half and it’s in our interest to get to the destination before that eventuality.
Budhi Gandaki kept company all along. On our way, we came across a local shop along the road side. Samosas were being fried. Immediately, we all flocked around the seller, who was a lady. The samosas were big. We got to see the raw materials stacked around which included fresh green peas, boiled vegetables and potatoes. These lured us. She fried the samosas and kept serving. The taste was heavenly. A pickle prepared by grinding green chilies, salt and some local spices added taste to the flavor. The price was nothing when compared to the size of the samosas, their taste and above all, the surroundings. After a few bends, we got to see the distant houses of the Machhakhola village.
Machhakhola would be the site for lunch. Initially, it was supposed to be the destination for the day, but en-route, our guide decided to carry on after lunch for another 1-2 hours. That should lead us to Khorla Besi and hence, curtail the distance for the morrow by the same amount. The plan sounded sensible and we agreed to it. After reaching Machhakhola, we ordered lunch, which was Nepalese thali that included rice, lentils, vegetables and green chilies. This is the staple food of Nepal across all regions and for most of our destinations along the route, we stuck to this diet. As we started off after lunch, a light drizzle started, which increased on our way and finally we had to pull out our raincoats. Dhananjoy was walking ahead of rest of us and soon moved out of sight. Clouds now moved in front and covered the hills surrounding us. With clouds coming on, the cold increased.
After walking for sometime, we saw Dhananjoy standing beside the road in a local shop. After reaching there, he dropped a bomb shell . He had left his water bottles at the tea house at Machhakhola. Our destination for the day was just ahead. The porters were reluctant to go back and fetch the bottles. After some deliberations, Dhananjoy himself went back. It was a tough ask at the end of the day, to go back the distance we just covered and repeat the same journey. It would take him at least two to three hours more. With all of us exhausted by the day’s walking, it was painful to even think of it, but he had no other option. We plodded ahead and reached Khorla Besi, a small village nestled amidst the hills with just a few tea houses. Our sweatshirts were drenched and we hung them on the wires, but with the moisture in the atmosphere, their chances of drying up were feeble. After arrival of Dhananjoy, Niladri pulled out the snacks and tea bags from his repertoire and we chatted along. Evening wore on and after dinner at 7 PM, we subsided to our rooms. We were sleeping at 1200 m.
5th November, 2019
I spent the previous evening sweating over how to get my clothes dried. Hanging them outside didn’t work, so I laid them under my blanket and slept over them (with the hope of my body warmth drying them up). However, they were still wet when I woke up the next morning. Getting clothes dried in time was crucial as we had to reuse them (may be not on successive days, but every alternate 2/3 days). Finally, Niladri gave the idea of hanging them on my back while walking. The days were usually bright and clear, so why not let the Sun do its job. 5th November, 2019 was the first day when I tried that option and it continued throughout the trek. Bags were packed and handed over to porters. Our morning tea session started with discussion about the day’s plan. It was a long one. To reach Jagat, our next destination, we’d have to walk about 20 kms and would take almost the entire day. We left Khorla Besi after breakfast at about 7 AM in the morning. The trail continued up along the banks of Budhi Gandaki amidst bright sunshine, traversing through the valleys, ravines and the gorges.
Sections of the trail were broken by land slides and the route was riddled with boulders, pebbles and loose grounds. We skid frequently, especially when the trail moved down towards the river bank. The views were ecstatic, but we had to focus on our feet while moving over unsettled grounds. The frequency of landslides, narrow trails, rock fall zones on this route gave a feeling that we humans are not always welcome in these “internal” areas of nature. As if it was giving us signs to stay away. It doesn’t like these relentless intrusions in its interiors in the form of ever increasing tea houses, tourists and the accompanying road construction. The trail now descended to the banks of the river, which roared down the gorges.
Herds of ponies kept crossing us and we had to make way for them. They are the lifelines to the upper reaches of the region. One has to be careful while encountering these herds. The trails are narrow and there’s no luxury of space. The ponies are often burdened with loads and they don’t tolerate any obstruction on their way as it’s very difficult to contain their momentum with loaded backs. Hence, it’s the pedestrians who have the make way for them on the way up or down. Things can get tricky on narrow blind bends. Since you can’t see the other side (hidden from your vision by the mountain walls), you may come across them unexpectedly. But the good thing is they have bells hung in their necks which keep ringing and can be heard from a distance. The moment you hear them, keep an eye to judge how far they are at the back or in front and whether you can cross the upcoming narrow passage before they reach that point. Paving way for them isn’t easy always as space is a luxury on these trails at many places and at times, you have to slant your body along the rising walls to give them passage. The key here is to reach a convenient point of passage early enough where you can stand decently and wait for them to cross instead of clamoring for space which can be precarious and dangerous at times.
The river gave us ample opportunities to shoot and our shutters kept rolling. People posed by standing on the boulders with the river in the background.
Boulders studding the river bed, bore the signs of the flowing torrent over the years which carved its own sculpture and pattern over them. After walking down the banks, we came across a suspension bridge which carried us to the other bank and a steep hike followed. We passed along villages where people were engrossed in their daily work. That mainly involved working in the fields, taming the roaming herds of goats to guide them to the pastures or towards home. Kids continued to cross our ways and we obliged them by distributing lozenges. Greetings of “Namaste” (a standard Nepalese respectful greeting) were exchanged. This greeting would gradually change to “Tashi Delek” (the Tibetan word for welcome) in the upper reaches inhabited by Tibetan refugees who came across the high mountain passes from trans Himalayan regions to settle in those areas after Chinese occupation of Tibet.
We gave a halt for sometime to drink water. Our guide informed that we were nearing our place for lunch. Another half an hour should lead us there. He gave us corn grains to chew. Apparently, this gives oxygen which is helpful in the higher altitudes. When we reached there, we saw just a few tea houses on the edge of a wide valley. The river Budhi Gandaki flowed through many streams spread wide across the huge valley that formed an amphitheater surrounded by hills. It was an exquisite place to have lunch.
We sat around the table as lunch was being prepared. The standard dal bhaat, the staple food of Nepal. Ranjan da pulled out his bottle of pickle made of green chilies. Every item on the menu was repeated as many times as we wished. We could see the walkway along the vertical rocky walls that rose above the valley of Budhi Gandaki.
This walkway deserves some mention. The earthquake of 2015 and the changing courses of the rivers had devastating effects on the trail to Jagat. At times, these events eroded large sections of the old trail. For quite sometime, the access to Jagat was through steep rising trails followed by sharp and dangerous drops. People from the valleys of Tsum, Nubri and other remote areas are heavily dependent on supplies and aids from the lower regions which were difficult to reach since the trail between Machhakhola and Jagat got severely damaged by the aforesaid events. Then, a Swiss company was tasked to make the trail safe in this section. After a superb display of engineering and an arduous effort put in by the locals, they came up with what is now called the walkway. It is a level steel bridge supported by angular structures clamped into the vertical rocky walls that rose up from the valley. After lunch, we resumed our walk and crossed a stoned stair case to reach the newly built walkway.
It was a treat to walk on this and we thanked the efforts of the people who built this. It was almost like walking along a level footpath in the high mountainous regions. After the end of it, another stone staircase brought us down to the valley again and a gradual trail followed which led us to the base of another suspension bridge that carried us to the other bank of Budhi Gandaki. Helicopters were making trips to the other side of the valley indicating the presence of a helipad nearby. After sometime we could see the distant houses of the village of Jagat. As we entered its outskirts, we were welcomed by a board of Manaslu Conservation Area Project (MCAP).
A map of the trek route was also on display with the prominent places, mountain peaks and passes marked out. Jagat is also the place where our permits would get checked. Our guide went to the MCAP office to have our permits checked.
We headed to our tea house. A single four-bedded room was allocated to us. Our bags reached there before. After changing to homewears, we sat on the beds with our usual tea and snacks session. Conversations involved our experience during the day, the new walkway, some friendly banters, leg pulling and the plan for the morrow, which would take us to the next destination Deng. The tea house had WiFi available and we called our respective homes to inform about our safe journey and health. A sense of relief, completion and satisfaction prevailed. After dinner, we went under the blankets. We were sleeping at 1370 m.
The previous night went in discussing with other members about the luggage they were taking along. Speaking to different members led to different opinions about the number of items to be carried along. There was one problem to cope with. We won’t be coming back to the place where we start from. It was a circuit trekking. Unlike previous occasions, Kathmandu (neither Pokhara) won’t figure on our way of return. Pokhara won’t come at all, while Kathmandu was to figure on the route, only on our way to the Manaslu circuit. This did have a bearing on the luggage as we couldn’t have dropped some at a place to recollect on our way back. Given that, we had to go through varying altitudes, the clothes, particularly warm-wear would vary accordingly. The thermal inner-ware is useless in lower reaches. We also had to keep an eye on the weight of our luggage to be humane towards the porters who would carry them along for about eleven days. After many deliberations, each of us narrowed down to our respective luggage – leaving out what we thought to be unnecessary.
Just after breakfast, Ranjan da came down to my place with a cab and we both headed towards Terminal 3 of Indira Gandhi International Airport. Dhananjoy was in touch with us all throughout. He started from his quarters and boarded the Airport Express Metro to reach Terminal 3. The boarding queue was long but finally, we made it through the check ins to the departure gate. We were careful with our seat selection in order to get window seats to get glimpses of the Himalayas as soon as the aircraft took off. Before boarding the aircraft, we spoke to Niladri on phone. His train was running late by an hour. After that conversation, he went out of contact as he entered Nepal from the Raxaul border. We were deprived of the views during the initial part as clouds held a veil in front of The Himalayas. The ranges of Garhwal and Kumaon eluded us, but gradually the clouds cleared up and once we were passing the ranges of Central Nepal, we could clearly identify Dhaulagiri, the peaks of the Annapurna range and the “double-edged” summit of Manaslu, our destination.
Unlike their Indian counterparts, the Nepal Himalayas didn’t disappoint. We had our eyes glued to the range as the aircraft went past them and started it’s descent towards the Kathmandu valley. We could see the valley surrounded by distant mountains, dotted with houses and fields. Temples and Monasteries stood out among them with their golden tops.
Before the trip, I started reading about the Annapurna expedition by the first climbing French team led by Maurice Herzog. Back then, the Kathmandu valley or for that matter, Nepal was a land of mystery offering limited access to the Western world. In order to reach Kathmandu, people had to travel by rail, then by road to a point. From there, a trek to cross a pass and again by road. But even this mode of transport couldn’t deter the royals from purchasing the modern cars or riding them on the streets of Kathmandu. Cars were carried by huge teams of porters (or coolies as they were called) who devised innovative ways of creating a platform of logs. The car used to be placed and fastened on top of that structure. This entire setup got carried by coolies through the roads, across and beyond the passes to Kathmandu.
We landed at the Tribhuvan international airport at about 1 PM, local time. It appeared all so familiar this time. The sky was clear with a very comfortable warmth of a November sunshine. A taxi took us through the Kathmandu streets towards Thamel, the tourism district of the city. We went past the Pashupatinath shrine on our way and reached the hotel Tibet Peace Inn. It is located just a few steps away from our place of stay for the Annapurna trip. After the formalities, we were served a welcome drink and then a local staff led us to our rooms. A few moments later, we ventured out to the streets of Thamel for lunch. Our plan was to have lunch and walk down to the Royal palace, about 3 kms from our place. After visiting it, the plan was to go to Basantapur Durbar Square, a must visit on the list of local sight seeings in Kathmandu. Hot, steaming momo served good for our lunch and after that, we started walking towards the Royal palace but as luck would have it, it was already closed for the day (we missed it by an hour).
Nevertheless, a few snaps in front of the palace, gave us some consolation and we started off towards Durbar Square. There was a glassy mall right opposite to the Royal palace. This, to me, came across as a sign of declining stature of the royals in Nepal, who, till a decade ago, commanded a lot of respect from the general public. In those days, it was impossible to have a commercial building obstruct the clear views of Royal palace from distance. But those heydays are a thing of past in contemporary Nepal. The statue of the former king Mahendra continues to adore the crossing in front of the royal palace. So do metallic sculptures of the kings Mahendra and Birendra, in the courtyard of the Pashupatinath temple.Unlike what some people said earlier, the Durbar Square turned out to be quite far from the Royal palace. We kept walking and asking the locals till we finally reached there. It was a slice of ancient Nepal amidst the modern streets of Kathmandu.
The area was dotted with ancient temples and structures all around. Tourists from all around the world thronged the place. Shopkeepers were busy luring them with their “best deals”. Tourists enjoyed the local street food and the numerous monkeys kept constant vigil with the hope of confiscating them.
Another attraction of the Durbar Square was the idol of Kal Bhairav – a deity that gets worshiped by locals, in the hope of warding off the evils.
After the visit to the Durbar Square, we came back to the hotel to await the arrival of Niladri. We had to be present before his arrival as there was no way we could communicate with him on phone. Finally, when his figure entered through the door, it seemed to me, once again, a slice of Kolkata, my native place, with a freshness, arrived in my life after about six months (since my last visit during the summers)! We ordered tea as soon as he arrived and a tea conference ensued (first of the many that would follow throughout the trip). Niladri pulled out some snacks from his bag, in which he carried a load of items that included tea bags and a steel mug for each one of us. All of these were a part of a strategy to reduce cost (food costs go extremely high, especially at the higher altitudes). The hotel had WiFi, which allowed us to contact our homes to announce our safe arrival. I gave a call to Tej Bahadur Gurung of Nepal Alternative Treks to inquire about our permits. We also had to meet him in the evening to submit our passports and pay our advances for him to arrange for our permits. We met him in the evening at his hotel to hand over our documents. He would send his men to the permit office the next morning and it could take till noon to get them done. After that, he’d arrange for a vehicle to take us to Sotikhola, which is where our trek would start from. We arrived in Kathmandu on a Saturday, the weekly off day in Nepal. That’s the reason, the permits had to be done the following day. After meeting Tej, we had our dinner at a local restaurant in Thamel and returned to the hotel. Plans were drawn up for a visit to the Pashupatinath shrine in the early morning, the next day.
3rd November, 2019
We woke up next morning and after the morning bath and a small tea session, we headed for the Pashupatinath shrine as planned on the previous day. The taxi took us through the dark streets of Kathmandu to the shrine. We walked down the lanes, all familiar since our visit last year. The temple courtyard was bustling with devotees and monkeys alike. After a visit of the idol, we started a walk around the courtyard (a Parikrama). It was all the same as before. The temple, the morning tolls of it’s bells, the chants by the priests and also, the cremation ground at it’s backyard. We crossed over the Bagmati river to it’s other side to have a view of the temple complex from elevated banks on that side.
On our way back to the hotel, we boarded a bus which took a different route that wandered through the streets of Kathmandu and dropped us at a place, from where we had to take a walk towards Thamel. On our way, we had breakfast. Finally, at about 11.30 AM, Tej Gurung gave us a call that our permits were ready. We took our bags to the place where the vehicle awaited us. We met our guide and one of the porters. Bidding goodbye to Tej Gurung, we started off on our journey. Another porter, Naveen, joined us en-route. The vehicle headed out of the Kathmandu valley along the highway to Pokhara. From Benighat, it left the Pokhara highway towards the town Aarughat. The afternoon was bright and the sun showered its golden rays over the paddy fields we passed by. The road started meandering up the slopes till it reached a point where Asphalt gave way to mud and boulders. We knew earlier that the secion of the road from Aarughat to Sotikhola was totally made of boulders, but it turned out that the stretch started much earlier, even before Aarughat. Evening was bearing on and we had to reach Sotikhola before dark. The vehicle kept bumping up and down on our topsy turvy ride. The road moved along the banks of the river Budhi Gandaki which came down the slopes with it’s water frothing along the rapids formed by it’s uneven bed. When we finally reached Sotikhola, the last trace of daylight was leaving the lower reaches of the valley, while the upper slopes of the surrounding hills still bathed in sunshine, a common phenomenon in the mountains. Our guide found a tea house and we subsided into our rooms. A tea session followed soon. Let me describe these tea sessions as it merits some mention. It usually started with Niladri puling out some tea bags from his repertoire. All of us then followed by pulling out some snacks (biscuits, chocolates, dates etc.) from our respective bags. We ordered a jug of hot water from the tea house. Mugs came out and tea got prepared by dipping the bags. Dhananjoy preferred having his tea bag dipped for at least 5 minutes before consumption. Apparently, that yielded a much better flavor (a fact which served as a basis of immense leg-pulling throughout the trip). It was then followed by candid discussions, friendly banters, leg pulling and plans for the coming days. We responded to a call for dinner at 7 PM to come out in the lawn in the chilly evening. The sky was pitch dark, studded with some stars. The guide gave us a lecture about the morrow’s plan (a pattern that would follow throughout the route). It had a fixed agenda and was spoken in a unique accent (more about it later) which was difficult to decipher. As per the plan, our next destination was Machhakhola. Finally, the day arrived when we’d hit the trail, once again! We subsided under blankets for the night. We were sleeping at 700 m.