Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Samdo

Pungyen Monastery

Dharamsala

11th November, 2019

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.

Samagaun

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.

En-route Samdo

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.

En-route Samdo

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).

En-route Samdo, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

En-route Samdo

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.

En-route Samdo

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.

En-route Samdo

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.

En-route Samdo, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Samdo

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.

Samdo

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.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Samdo

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.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

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.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

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.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

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.

Samdo, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Pungyen Monastery

Dharamsala

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Pungyen monastery

Samagaun

Samdo

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.

Mt Manaslu at sunrise, Samagaun

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.

Mt Manaslu at sunrise, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

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.

Mt Manaslu at sunrise, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

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.

Samagaun, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De
Samagaun, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Mt Manaslu, Samagaun

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.

Samagaun

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.

En route Pungyen monastery, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

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.

Himal Chuli, en-route Pungyen monastery, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

En-route Pungyen monastery

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.

En-route Pungyen monastery

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.

Mt Nadi Chuli, en-route Pungyen monastery
Mt Manaslu, en-route Pungyen monastery, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

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.

En-route Pungyen monastery

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.

En-route Pungyen monastery
En-route Pungyen monastery

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!

Mt Manaslu, en-route Pungyen mnastery, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

One the way back, Pungyen monastery, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

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.

Samagaun

Samdo

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Samagaun

Lho

Pungyen Monastery

9th November, 2019

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.

Lho

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.

Lho

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.

Lho

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.

Lho

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.

En-route Samagaun

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.

En-route Samagaun, Picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Mt Ngadi Chuli, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Mt Himal Chuli, Syala, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Syala

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.

Mt Manaslu, Syala

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.

En-route Syala

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.

Pastures, Samagaun, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Samagaun

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.

Samagaun

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.

Samagaun

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.

Virendra Taal

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.

Virendra Taal

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.

Lho

Pungyen Monastery

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Lho

Namrung

Samagaun

8th November, 2019

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.

Namrung

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.

En-route Lho

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.

En-route Lho

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.

En-route Lho, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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).

En-route Lho, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

En-route Lho

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.

En-route Lho, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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

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”.

Lho

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.

Lho

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.

Lho

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.

Lho monastery, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Namrung

Samagaun

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Namrung

Deng

Lho

7th November, 2019

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.

En-route Namrung

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.

En-route Namrung

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.

En-route Namrung

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.

Ghap

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.

En-route Namrung

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.

En-route Namrung

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.

En-route Namrung

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.

En-route Namrung

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.

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.

Deng

Lho

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Deng

Khorla Besi and Jagat

Namrung

6th November, 2019

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.

Jagat – picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Picture courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

En-route Salleri, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

En-route 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.

Salleri

After Salleri, a suspension bridge took us to other side of the river where a moderate climb began towards Philim.

En-route 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.

En-route Nyak Phedi

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.

En-route Nyak Phedi

Eklabhatti too, had an entrance gate, carefully created by stacking up stones to welcome the entrants.

Eklabhatti, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Waterfalls kept coming down the walls. We encountered a few more on our way from Eklabhatti to Nyak Phedi.

En-route 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.

En-route Nyak Phedi

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.

Nyak Phedi – picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

Khorla Besi and Jagat

Namrung

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Khorla Besi and Jagat

Kathmandu

Deng

4th November, 2019

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.

Sotikhola, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We strode past other lodges and the trail moved gradually upwards. Mist rose from the valley and surrounded us.

The mist in the valley

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.

Picture courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

Machhakhola – picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

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.

En-route Jagat

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.

Picture courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

Picture courtesy – Dhananjoy De

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.

The walkway – enroute Jagat

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).

Jagat

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.

Kathmandu

Deng

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu – Kathmandu

Manaslu

Khorla Besi and Jagat

2nd November, 2019

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.

The Himalayas

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).

Narayanhiti Royal palace – Kathmandu

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.

Basantapur Durbar Square

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.

Durbar Square

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.

Kal Bhairav – Durbar Square, Kathmandu

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.

Pashupatinath shrine

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.

Manaslu

Khorla Besi and Jagat

Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu

Kathmandu

During the concluding phases of our visit to the Annapurna Base Camp, we were thinking about what could be our next venture. The target was obviously Nepal as it houses half of the highest mountains in the world. Though we are not a group of climbers, so the rankings of mountains by their heights shouldn’t mean much to us, but there’s no doubting the fact that they add to the aura. More often than not, it’s likely that they’d have a route to their base camps and they normally go through a wide range of altitudes and varying landscapes. The name of the mountain that came up this time was Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain of the world. The name Manaslu translates to the meaning “mountain of the spirit“. It is derived from the Sanskrit word manasa which means soul or spirit. Firstly, it belongs to the famed 8000-ers (the mountain peaks that reach 8000 m or more) and secondly, this trail is not about going to the base camp and returning via the same route. It is about encircling the Manaslu massif with the route likely to take us through the varied landscapes, flora, fauna and the culture of the people inhabiting the villages that are sprinkled densely (at the lower levels) and sparsely (at the higher levels) along the route. For the first time, we’d be taking a route that will not be the same on our way back. That is to say, on our way up and down, we’d be traversing “different” places.

The region

Mt Manaslu is the eighth highest mountain in the world with a height of 8163 m. It is a part of the Mansiri Himal (Himal: Sections or ranges of The Himalayas typically including many mountain peaks) lying in the Gorkha district of West-central Nepal. It lies about 64 km east of the Annapurna range of Central Nepal. Starting from Arughat to Larkya La (the highest point in the trek), the Manaslu region covers different climatic zones ranging from tropical & sub-tropical zones in the lower reaches, to temperate, sub-alpine and alpine zones. The flora and fauna varies accordingly. The valleys in the lower reaches are covered with lush green forests, which gradually pave the way for arid trans-Himalayan pastures finally reaching the snow line at its highest elevation at Larkya La, which is the passage from the Gorkha district to the Manang district or in other words, from the Manaslu Conservation area to the Annapurna Conservation area. The Manaslu Conservation Area Project was started in 1997 with the aim of conservation of natural resources and culture of the region.

There are many ethnic groups inhabiting the area, Nubri and Tsum being the primary two divides. The Gurungs inhabit the hills of the central area, while the Bhotias of Tibetan ethnicity can be found in the higher reaches dotted with serene monasteries, stupas and mani walls.

Climbing history

They say Mt Everest is the mountain of the British, but Mt Manaslu belongs to the Japanese. This is mainly derived from the fact that the majority of the initiatives to climb the former was driven by the British and ultimately, the expedition that tasted success for the first time, was also organized by them. Similarly, for the latter, the same applies to the Japanese (be it the majority of failed attempts, the first successful climb and even the first successful team of women on the mountain).

In 1950, H. W. Tilman led an expedition that trekked from the Kathmandu valley to Manang, which they used as a base camp to explore the valleys and mountains in and around the Annapurna massif. It was the same time when a French expedition team led by Maurice Herzog was exploring the regions between the Annapurna massif and the Dhaulagiri massif looking for options to climb any of the two who would lower their defenses first. While Maurice’s team tasted success on Annapurna Main, Tilman’s team made an unsuccessful attempt on Annapurna IV. During these efforts, when Tilman’s team was exploring the higher reaches of the river Dudhkhola, they were able to get a clear view of Mt Manaslu from Bimthang (now used as a stopover on the way down from Larkya La in the Manaslu Circuit Trek). Three months after that aborted attempt, Tilman, along with J. O. M. Roberts trekked to Larkya La and from there, had a clear view of Manaslu and its slopes. They concluded that there is a direct route to the summit, but they didn’t attempt it.

Between 1950-54, there were as many as four Japanese expeditions to the mountain. In 1952, a Japanese reconnaissance  team visited the area after monsoons. The following year saw a Japanese team of fifteen attempting to climb the mountain via the east side by setting their base camp at Samagaun. But the expedition failed with four members of the team having to turn back after reaching 7750 m. The 1954 team had to face a group of hostile villagers at Samagaun who thought that the Japanese expeditions of the previous years have displeased the God, resulting in avalanches that destroyed the Pung-gyen monastery, killing 18 people in the process (now a side trek destination from Samagaun that gives exquisite views of Himalayan peaks including Manaslu). The team had to make a hasty retreat to Ganesh Himal. They made generous donations towards rebuilding the monastery, but that failed to please the local inhabitants. Finally, in the year 1956, on May, the 9th, Toshio Imanishi of Japan and Sherpa Gyaltsen Norbu made the first successful ascent of Manaslu. This team too, had to face the wrath of local population (a leftover of previous expeditions). The next successful climb was only in 1971, again by a Japanese team, lending weight behind the term “Japanese mountain”. The next year, 1972, saw the first climb via the South-West face by Reinhold Messner. The same year saw one of the deadliest accidents on the slopes of Manaslu. Fifteen members of a Korean expedition were killed when an avalanche buried their camp at the height of 6500 m. In this topsy turvy history, if there were some lows, certainly there were some highs too. The year 1974 saw the first team of women succeed on the mountain. An expedition led by by Kyoko Sato, a team comprising of the climbers Naoko Nakaseko, Masako Uchida and Mieko Mori successfully climbed Manaslu on 4th May along with Jambu Sherpa. They were also the first team of women to climb any 8000 m peak.

The trek

A trek that now spans for 163 km, starts from Sotikhola and ends at Dharapani, on the Annapurna circuit route. The trek follows an ancient salt-trading route along the gorges of the Budhi Gandaki river. The slopes are steep in the lower regions till one reaches the village of Deng. The lower reaches go through dense forests amidst the river gorges and offers ample views of gorgeous waterfalls.

The slopes start becoming more gradual after Deng, after which, views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks start to appear. The village of Lho offers the first view of the double edged summit of Mt Manaslu.

After that, the route travels through the forests of the Syala village (that offers a 360 degree view of Himalayan peaks) to a slight descent to Samagaun, lying on the eastern base of Manaslu. After Samagaun, a flat trail with a steep rise at the end takes one to Samdo, the highest village in the Budhi Gandaki valley. The trail after that is along another valley bordering Tibet taking one to Dharamsala, the base for night halt before attempting to cross Larkya La, the next day. After crossing the pass, the trail enters the Annapurna Conservation area to descend to BimThang and then moving further down to Dharapani following the banks of Dudhkhola. From Dharapani, one can take a jeep ride to Besisahar. The trek takes you from an altitude of 600 m to a maximum height of 5106 m (Larkya La).

The trip

We returned from Nepal after completing the Annapurna Base Camp trek making a pledge to return to the Manaslu region next year. At the turn of 2019, I reached out to my regular companions Dhananjoy De, Niladri Sekhar Guha and Ranjan da (Ranjan Ghosh). They are the ones who have accompanied me in all my earlier ventures to Nepal. This time around, we were cautious about reaching out to others. We did reach out to other members of the erstwhile Annapurna team, but they were not able to make it for different reasons. But, unlike on last occasion, we didn’t try to convince many people and were content to limit ourselves to the “core four”. Our usual queries started flowing in different directions. Some to the tour operator, others to internet. People started watching videos about the trek. The views on the offering made us exited even more and plans were drawn out. Initially, we wanted to include Tsum valley, but had to drop the idea because of time constraints. According to the final plan, Niladri was to start from Kolkata on 1st November (a Friday) on a train to reach Raxaul on 2nd. He was to reach Kathmandu, the same day in the evening. The rest of us were to take a morning flight to Kathmandu on 2nd November. One the 3rd, we were to travel by a jeep to Sotikhola. The trek was to start on 4th. Successive days were to see us scaling heights and 13th was supposed to be the D-Day, i.e. the day to cross Larkya La. The bugle calls were on and so was our journey to the Himalayan nation Nepal for a third time on a trekking adventure! In my upcoming posts, I intend to take you along the journey through the gorges of Budhi Gandaki and Dudhkhola.

Kathmandu

Goddess of the harvests, Annapurna – au revoir

At her feet

24th October, 2018

At about 2 or 3 AM, there were some movements in the rooms. Ranjan da started to mount his lenses to his camera and then started working on the manual focus settings. That reminded me of the night ventures we were about to take. Full moon was nearby and we didn’t want to waste the opportunity to witness the moonlit views of the Annapurna range, especially when the weather showed promises of staying clear in the previous evening. Sounds of similar movements came up from the adjacent rooms. The daughters were deep asleep. We went outside and were greeted amidst what was nothing less of a paradise! All the surroundings were white, the place where we stood, the mountains, the roof of the lodges, everywhere. All of that and the surrounding mountains were placed against a pitch dark background of clear sky dotted with numerous stars. The ones who are familiar with the galaxies and their shapes (which I’m not) could might as well have recognized them easily. The moon was in the sky behind us in full glory, showering its light on the Annapurna range which we were looking at. People got started with the manual focus settings of their DSLR cameras as auto focus doesn’t work in such conditions. They got started with their snaps and each had to take multiple shots for a subject to get it to perfection after adjusting the shutter speed and exposure duration to the optimum. At the end, many did a great job in capturing as much as possible of what was at our disposal.

Annapurna range at night, ABC, pic courtesy – Niladri Sekhar Guha

Himalayan views at night are not very common, not at least in full moon. It gave us a sense of accomplishment since the trip was planned with meticulous details keeping many factors in mind and one of them was full moon. We started to plot the days after fixing the day at the Annapurna Base Camp, just before full moon and rest of the schedule was worked backwards from there.

Annapurna Main at night, ABC, pic courtesy – Niladri Sekhar Guha

After all that, we headed back to our respective rooms and slid under the blankets. Fortunately for us, there were no shortage of them, unlike at Bamboo. They were thick enough to give us enough warmth to sleep with reasonable comfort with all our warm wears on. Everyone was keen to make most of the night left with us before we start preparing for the famous sunrise and the descent, which were just about 3 hours away. The alarm went off at 4 AM and I started with the preparations. After setting aside the clothes for my daughter, I went for my morning duties. Just as I dipped the mug in the water stored in a bucket, it struck something hard and refused to go in. When I looked at it, I saw crystals of ice covering the entire surface of the water in the bucket. It was only after applying some pressure, I could dip the mug. I decided that there was no point making my daughter go through the pain so I let her sleep. Others got started too and as the time wore on for the sunrise, we went out. The place was already crowded with people from different lodges and teams. The sky started to acquire a tinge of blue. The mountains nearby still wore a dark outline. The peaks of the Annapurna range and their snow abode were clearly visible beyond the dark outline. After sometime, the outline gradually started to move down and the mountain tops became clearer. Annapurna South was the first to get the showers of gold.

Annapurna South at sunrise, Annapurna Base Camp

As if nature was gradually placing the crown of glory on her. The dark outline moved further down the slopes of Annapurna South as the crown gradually fit on its forehead.

Annapurna South at sunrise, Annapurna Base Camp

As the sun changed its position, the crown spread its influence on the surrounding peaks of the Annapurna range, almost like a wild fire.

Annapurna range at sunrise, ABC, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De
Annapurna range at sunrise, ABC, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De
Annapurna range at sunrise, ABC, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De

People crammed for spaces and positions to click their “best” shots. Shutters rolled on relentlessly and people were awestruck by the dazzling display of colors. I can continue uploading many more snaps but still have to admit that what we saw and hence, was imprinted in our minds and hearts, can never be depicted by the snaps. I recalled the words of one of the trekkers we met on our way up. Nowhere else in this world, one gets to witness nature’s beauty with such a short walk from the plains. Nowadays, even helicopters literally lift and ferry people to this base camp in matter of hours, but by doing that people are robbed off the views of the landscapes, forests, villages and pastures on the way that leads up to the base camp.

Annapurna base camp, pic courtesy – Dhananjoy De
Annapurna Main, at sunrise, Annapurna Base Camp

After the extended photography session, we headed back to the lodge. It was time to get the kids ready, strap our backpacks and hit the trails as early as possible. The previous evening had witnessed heavy snow and the route down to MBC had to be negotiated carefully, given that we didn’t have crampons with us and the kids needed care too. I let my daughter go ahead with Niladri, Dhananjoy and rest of the group. I kept company with Ranjan da and Rumi (his daughter) and Raju followed us. From the lodge premises, a set of stair cases went down and merged with the trail below. There was no trace of land that wasn’t colored white. I tried to place my footsteps carefully trying to get some grip. In spite of that, I was brought down to my knees on one occasion. On our way down, I tried to walk along the edges of the trail which had some grass and pebbles that could offer some grip as opposed to walking down the middle which had already turned slippery, thanks to the melting ice. Ranjan da and even our guide Raju, met with the same fate a few times. The section of the trail till MBC had to be negotiated carefully. Beyond that point, the route was devoid of snow (at least not as much as the initial section). I could see the figures of my daughter and Niladri, both dwarfed by the distance they had moved ahead of us. Going by the looks, at least from the distance, they seemed fine. Rumi (Ranjan da’s daughter) was coming slowly but steadily behind me. In a bid to be extra careful, I asked her to follow my steps but slid at least three to four times. She must have laughed at the skills of her new “teacher”. Gradually, we passed the familiar site of MBC and entered the valley that was to take us to Deurali. We hoped to see Mona da there (going by the plans he shared yesterday) but there were no signs of him. He must have gone down further but the reason for that became clear much later in the day.

Deurali, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We stopped for breakfast at Deurali. Our destination for the day was Bamboo, which was still a long way to go. So we didn’t waste much time and hit the trail soon. After a few steps from Deurali, the forests reappeared and once again, after two days, we were walking under canopy cover. I caught up with Niladri and my daughter, who was back to her tantrums, but less than before. Skies gave ominous signs and chances of rain increased. By the time we reached Himalaya for lunch, it was overcast. Bamboo was still far down. We put on our rain coats. Soon afterwards, incessant rains started. The raincoat (or “poncho”, as they call it) of my daughter proved much bigger than what fits her. The fallout was, it almost covered her feet and shoes. She couldn’t even look where she was stepping in. It was proving difficult in these rainy conditions. The rocks and boulders had covers of moss, which now turned slippery with the rain. With the increasing intensity, visibility reduced and we finally had to halt at Dovan to give a chance for the rain to subside. After it subsided somewhat, we resumed our journey. Passers by kept asking whether my daughter went all the way up to the base camp and kept encouraging her for, what they thought, was an amazing feat achieved at her age. We reached Bamboo at about 5 PM in the evening. We started from ABC at 7 AM and after 10 hours, we were at Bamboo. We met Mona da and got to know that he came to Deurali on his way down, only to find that there wasn’t any place to sleep. He moved further down and met with the same fate at other lodges and finally at Dovan, he was allotted a bed in the kitchen. He hoped for a sound sleep after an arduous day, but the mice under his blanket kept him on guard and he could never close his eyes again. Fellow hikers who were sleeping in the kitchen, found his experience “exciting” but Mona da had a diametrically opposite view.

25th October

The day’s destination was Jhinudanda. Effectively, what took us four days to hike, was to get covered in two days on our way down. Walking down the hills is not as easy as it seems. On your way up, the knees and lungs bear the brunt. On the way down, the lungs get freed up, but knees have their share of stress. Moreover, in this route, there are hikes on the way down as well. From Bamboo, there is a hike to upper Sinuwa (though the slope is relatively gentle). The trail beyond it goes down the stair cases to the hanging bridge to reach lower Chomrong and then comes the long hike to upper Chomrong . Beyond that, the final set of stairs take you down to Jhinudanda. In short, its a topsy-turvy trail. The good part was that the day was sunny and we hoped to reach Jhinudanda no later than 2-3 PM. An added attraction there is a hot spring. Apparently, one could bathe in the lukewarm waters of the spring and all the pain of the trail is supposed to get alleviated. As usual, we started the trek after breakfast. The clear weather helped the cause and my daughter didn’t mind the gradual hike. We reached Sinuwa and ordered our breakfast. We wished to spend some more time there, but the other driver was to get to Jhinudanda as quickly as possible so as to have enough time for bathing at the hot spring. After Sinuwa, we moved down the stair cases to reach the hanging bridge over the river and then the hike to Chomrong started. We stared at the series of steps that moved up to the top of the hill, which seemed endless. To get a frequent sense of accomplishment and milestones, I moved up twenty steps at a time, halted and resumed to move another twenty. The pattern repeated till I reached a point from where the top of the hill (upper Chomrong) appeared a bit nearer. After reaching the top, we crossed the now familiar streets of upper Chomrong, the lodge where we stayed on our way up and finally started moving down the stairs that led us to Jhinudanda.

On the way down to Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The turns and bends seemed familiar and after crossing a few of them, we could see Jhinudanda, down below, with a bird’s eye view. By the time we reached the lodge, some of our members were already relaxing on the terrace, with their legs spread, enjoying cans of beer in the bright afternoon sun. After settling in our rooms, we joined the rest. Calls were made to our respective homes, reporting a successful completion of our trek, pleasantries were exchanged. The afternoon dragged on leisurely and no one (at least not me) was in a mood to hurry. People enjoyed their lunch. After that, we ventured out for the hot spring. For a moment, I thought to give it a skip (it was a downhill walk for about 20 minutes, which meant, another uphill hike of at least 30 mins to be back at the lodge), but the lure of lukewarm water dragged me on. We went our way down the hilly slopes through the forest, carrying our respective sets of clothes and towels. At the hot spring, there was a lot of noise with tourists from all over the world taking a dip in the artificial pools that have been created with hot spring water carried by pipelines into them. They were located exquisitely right beside the roaring Modi Khola river. As we immersed ourselves into the pool, it was an extraordinary experience.

Modi Khola, Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De


The lukewarm pool water gave the warmth and comfort to drain away all the stress and pain of the trail. Sitting in the warm waters, one can enjoy the site of the roaring Modi khola thundering down the gorge just by the springs. Time just flied as we jostled with others in the pool, teased each other or just laid down enjoying the warmth and comfort of the hot spring. After the bath, we hiked up the trail to reach the lodge. It was already dark.

26th October

We woke up early in the morning. Though the walk for the day was very short, we wanted to get to Pokhara as early as possible. Even at Jhinudanda, the cold was not insignificant and we had to put on our jackets. The sun was about to make its appearance and the color of the snow peaks beyond the hills of upper Chomrong showed the reflection of its movements.

Jhinudanda
Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

They were crowned with gold, a view, familiar to us by now. Though it wasn’t a view of the full range as we saw at the base camp, but still, it was the unmistakable brilliance of nature in The Himalayas, which we were witnessing probably for the last time on this trail. The moon, on the other side of the sky was preparing to leave the stage, handing over its reigns to the sun.

Jhinudanda, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

A short walk took us to the nearest road head, Khumi. A bus from there went through the meandering roads of the lower forests, villages and lush paddy fields on our way down to Pokhara. Throughout the route, the entire Annapurna range kept its vigil on us, as if luring us to come back.

En route Pokhara, pic courtesy, Dhananjoy De

After reaching Pokhara, people dispersed in small groups to go for marketing. Some others, including me, went for a boat ride at the Fewa lake in the fading afternoon sun. A nice cool breeze greeted us at the lake as we embarked on our boat ride. As the boatman kept dragging the boat gently, sounds of splashes of water kept soothing our ears. We turned around to have a view of this huge lake.

Fewa Lake, Pokhara

On our left, hills moved upwards to a point where a few roads and houses were visible. That place is Sarangkot, one of the tourist attractions around Pokhara. As the sun started to call it a day, the snow peaks, marginally visible beyond the hills of Sarangkot, turned crimson.

Sanagkot, as visible from Fewa Lake, Pokhara

27th October

I woke up at 4 AM in the morning and went to Niladri’s room. They left for the bus stand to board a bus for Birganj. From there, a tonga was to take them to the Raxaul station to board the train for Kolkata. We bade goodbye to them as we did to Kunal and Arindam. They took the bus for Sunauli, in order to reach Gorakhpur to board their train for Delhi. Rest of us headed to Kathmandu. From there, the next day, we flew to Delhi. We came from different places, assembled at Kathmandu for our trip. Now, the reverse scenes were being played out with different groups heading for their respective home/work destinations. The objective of months of planning & discussion came to an end. But, for sure, as they say, The Himalayas will give their bugle calls and it will certainly reach the ears of mere mortals like us to respond!

At her feet