Manang is a part of the Gandaki province of Nepal. The Thorong La situated at 5416m above the sea level, connects Manang to the Mustang district. The pass connects Manang to the town of Muktinath in the Mustang district. The Manang district lies to the north of the Annapurna range of the Himalayas in its rain shadow area and hence, receives very less precipitation. That reflects in its landscapes which bears a dry, desolate and rugged look. It lies close to the Tibetan border. The route out of Manang via Thorong La has been used by the locals of Manang for years and continues to be an important route till date. “In the Shadow of Annapurna, Nyeshyang” was filmed in the year 1988. The film explores the lives and cultures of the Nyeshyang valley, better known as Manang today. People of the region have been adapting to changing times. The famous English mountaineer H W Tilman visited Manang in 1950. The Manangis are a business community and they’ve been travelling to different parts of Nepal as well as abroad for a long time. They were granted a special license by the government of Nepal to travel into Tibet and over time, became cornerstones of cross border trade between the two countries. Manang was a protected area until 1977. After that, it was opened for outsiders and with the rising popularity of the Annapurna circuit (of which, Manang forms an important part). Travelers started pouring in since 1980s. Before that, the locals were able to use the limited forest resources of the area sustainably for firewood and timber. However, with the increase of travelers, so did their demand for hot showers and soon it started to put stress on the limited natural resources of the area. It was realized soon and steps were taken to address the issue. Today, hot showers are powered by solar energy almost throughout the Annapurna circuit.
The film “In the Shadow of Annapurna, Nyeshyang” captures the changing times of Manang and provides a glimpse into its early days. It depicts local shepherds discussing strategies to counter the threat posed to their herds of yak and sheep by the snow leopards roaming the valleys. They’ve reduced in numbers and are rarely seen today. But some still lurk in the higher slopes feeding on wild blue sheep (called “bharals” by locals). With the advent of tourism, a large part of Manangis have shifted from agriculture to hotels. Today, Manang boasts some of the finest hotels and lodges of the area that offer best of staying experience for travelers. It also has some of the finest bakeries and we too got to taste their produce.
We woke up to a bright but cold morning. Clouds stayed clear off the mountains. We went for the roof top with the hope of watching the sun rise and we weren’t disappointed. While the sun was still not out in the sky, day light was breaking and the surrounding peaks stood out against the backdrop of the clear sky. We turned our heads around and were treated with gorgeous display of high mountain peaks all around us, a full 360 degree view. The cold was biting but it was worth waiting. Solar rays started spraying colors on Mt Gangapurna while others remained in the shadow.
Gradually, the dark shadow line started gliding down the slopes paving way for the golden solar rays to take over. The act that started with Mt Gangapurna, repeated along the slopes of other mountain peaks which joined the bandwagon and pretty soon, all of them were crowned with golden glory.
It seemed out of the world. The Tilicho peak, in particular, was bathed in gold. Others had touches of black because of exposed rock surfaces, but Mt Tilicho was covered with snow and the solar rays had a free run along its slopes to paint it in the way they wanted.
As the morning advanced, the solar rays changed colors frequently. Nature was playing out its act and the colors of the scenes changed fast. The golden hue faded away and dazzling silver took its place. The peaks seemed so near, we could see fumes of cloud flowing off their edges. These were snow storms/blizzards often triggered by gales of wind which keep dashing against the snow walls. Such snow storms send out snow particles thick and fast into the surrounding air giving an impression that the mountains wore a silver scarf.
Camera shutters kept rolling on as pictures piled up in the digital stores of camera disks and mobile phones. After that, we headed towards our rooms to get ready. Unlike other days, this was supposed to be an acclimatization day. We weren’t supposed to leave Manang, but roam in and around it to give chance to our bodies to get acquainted with the high altitudes we were in. Going by the suggestions of the lodge owner, we dropped the idea of visiting the ice lake, but opted for Gangapurna lake instead. The lake was very near to the rest house and a trail went along its sides towards the upper reaches, giving a great opportunity of hiking. After getting ready, we headed for the dining space for our breakfast. Our backpacks were lighter as we could leave most of our luggage at the tea house. The tea house had a wonderful bakery and many of its products were on display. I went for a sandwich meal, others opted for burgers. The sandwich was thick, filled with vegetables and sauces. It was delicious and filling. The quality and quantity of the food was amazing. They’ve made it so comfortable in these remote areas, that you often forget the physical challenges.
After breakfast, we headed out and turned left from the tea house, the trail went down towards the valley where we crossed the river. Mountains moved closer to us and so did the Gangapurna lake. It was a tad disappointing as it was devoid of water with its bed filled with mud and debris that came down the slopes of Gangapurna. However, we were more than compensated by the view of the Gangapurna glacier along the slopes of the mountain.
The trail moved up gradually. I put on my jacket to stave off the cold, but as the sun wielded its power, walking added to the heat generated and we soon had to peel off the extra warm wears. Our guide pointed upwards to the point till which we were supposed to go. The route was lined with pine trees and the final destination of the hike was beyond the tree line where we could see patches of snow. There were a few low summits dotted by mani stones. As we moved up the slopes, the glacier and the mountains gained in their stature. Years of snow and ice get covered with boulders, gravels and dust that come down the slopes and at times, it becomes difficult to distinguish between rocks and ice, thanks to the cover of debris.
A local dog kept company with us and went ahead of us along the slopes. Patches of snow were still lying around as remainders of past spells of rough weather. The dog was amused after reaching one of these spots and started sliding, toppling and rolling over the snow. It was also pinching and thumping in the snow with its paws. Though we initially thought it to be an ecstatic display of the dog’s pleasure, but later I suspected that it could be looking for insects or other living creatures lurking under the snow in search of a meal. Cold reappeared suddenly as the sun momentarily hid under a patch of cloud. It was such a change, that we had to put on our warm wears again only to peel them off once the cloud disappeared.
Mani stones adorned the hill tops with strings of prayer flags emanating from them along the slopes. Mountain peaks glittered in the morning sun and it was a dazzling display of snow at great heights. Annapurna II, III, IV, Gangapurna, Tilicho and many others were at the party.
After spending considerable time at the top, we embarked on our return journey down the slopes. The entire hike was comfortable and warm under the bright sun. On our way down, we reached a tea stall and spent sometime there having tea and biscuits. After returning to the tea house, we had our lunch. After lunch, we visited a local museum that displayed old pictures, artifacts and utensils of village life. It provided a glimpse into the village life of Manang as it existed before becoming a bustling tourist center. The warm afternoon sun was comfortable and we kept roaming around leisurely in the village.
Wi-Fi was available and we used it to the full extent to talk to our homes, share pictures with them and at times even making video calls. Annapurna circuit route is a lot different from other routes in terms of facilities available and we never felt far from our homes, thanks to the connectivity.
Dhananjoy opted for “Dal bhat” at dinner and we stuck to burger meals. At our request, they served us melting hot “ghee” and it was a delicious addition to the “Dal bhat” meal. After dinner, we had a chat with the tea house owner about the route ahead in both directions (Thorang la as well as Tilicho base camp). While Thorang la had opened up and a few teams have already crossed it, the route to Tilicho base camp was open, but there was still no news about the route ahead towards the lake. Nevertheless, it was a positive development that at least we could now get to the base camp and Thorang la. The delay of an additional day at Dharapani proved beneficial in giving time for the weather to clear up. Chances were getting higher for us to visit both the places (or so I thought). After dinner, we came back to our rooms and played ludo on mobile to kill sometime. The room was spacious. We had the beds to ourselves with ample space between them. The blankets too were warm enough. Despite all that, sleep eluded me for a long time even after I slid under the blanket. I kept thinking about Tilicho lake. How much snow could we expect? Will the route to the lake open in time for us to visit? How safe would the route be, especially during descent when warm sunlight would melt the morning snow and chances of slipping would increase? I kept tossing around the bed with these thoughts. Manang was probably going to be the last place on the route where we could connect to our homes as no one could tell us how the connectivity was likely to be in the upper reaches. Having said that, we shouldn’t expect it anyways, given the altitudes. It’s more than enough that we were able to maintain connectivity with our homes till Manang. That in itself is a boon. Then came the thoughts about the long landslide area that lies on the route towards Tilicho base camp. We’d have to cross it the next day. YouTube videos made the slopes look scary. Would there be snow along that route too? How frequent do streams of rocks come down the slopes? Herds of blue sheep roam around in the upper reaches and they’re another reason behind the streams of rocks that are sent down the slopes. How long would the stretch be? We’d have to cross it twice on our way to and from the Tilicho base camp. Once we reach Sree Kharka on our way back from Tilicho base camp, that stretch would be behind us. After that, the Thorong la would be the last hurdle. Such thoughts kept coming, keeping sleep at bay but as everything comes to an end, so did they and I finally got some sleep.
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