Manaslu Circuit Trip Report:  “It’s all possible until it’s not possible”

In the early summer, I got the hankering to go back to Nepal.  I’ve been there before—the Annapurna Circuit (2010, before DCUL), Langtang Valley (2012), and then Upper Mustang Valley (2014).  I used to joke that that I was on the “every other year” schedule, but somehow I’d fallen off that.  The way things worked out Shuttle didn’t have any vacation time (I have a lot), so I figured I’d just pick a trip that we’d not talked about doing together.  In 2010, early on my Annapurna circuit, one of the guides in my very large group had point to the right as we hiked some of the early stages of that trek: “That’s the way to the Manaslu Circuit.”  The hike had stuck in my imagination since then.  If you read very much into the various Nepalese treks, you’ll see superlatives like “it’s the best single trek in Nepal” or “it’s what Annapurna used to be like before the road.”  High praise indeed.

So, I made a trip.  B~~~ joined me, as did Russ (soon to be dubbed Inspector Gadget) and Jessica (aka, The Apothecary).  This was a stalwart group from the get-go.  B~~~ is who he is.  This would be his first trip to Nepal so it will be interesting if he adds his impressions.  Inspector Gadget and the Apothecary had done the Annapurna Circuit recently.  Thus, this was a group in which there would be no whining.

We all flew out from IAD, 11/20, on Wednesday night, and landed in Abu Dhabi the next day.  We told Russ and Jess that we’d see them in Kathmandu, as they had separate hotels and flights the next day; B~~~ and I cabbed it to the Hilton Grand (points) where we drank beer by the hotel pool.  I was a little disappointed that all of the cool, strange things Abu Dhabi had to offer (the new Louvre, Ferrariworld) seemed to keep banker’s hours, so we wouldn’t be able to visit.  For us, Abu Dhabi was all airport transfers, posh car dealerships, foreign workers, dear leader pictures, and luxury airport boutiques.  I liked it less than Doha, I think, but it was welcoming enough.  It felt like we’d been in the dark for days, though.  B~~~ and I slept and returned to the airport to board a nearly empty flight to Kathmandu.

And boom, you’re there—two days after leaving the office.  B~~~ and I got in late Friday.  We drank a few beers and went to sleep.  This is the Hotel Manaslu—a very nice and quiet hotel a little outside Thamel—the foreign quarter.  For my fourth trip, I definitely don’t mind being a bit outside the chaos of Thamel.

Kathmandu is a serious assault on the senses.  It’s a bustling, amazing place that most people are ready to leave in about 24 hours.  Saturday, B~~~ and I hit the sights, renting a car for the day and seeing Monkey Temple, Durbar Square, Buddha Stupa, and the Museum and the Durbar Square in Patan. 

That’s a lot of tourism, all while choking on exhaust fumes.  Russ and Jessica took it easier.  We met up for dinner in Thamel.

Sunday, 11/24, we met our guide Mahendra and the porters and loaded up our gear on the jeep for the long drive to Arughat Bazar and the start of our trek.  I should say that I used the trekking company I’ve used since 2012.  I prefer to use a guide and porters in Nepal.  (You’ll have to buy me a beer to hear my opinions on that topic.)  In any case, a guide is required for the Manaslu Conservation area, so that’s the end of that particular debate.  Thus followed a terrible traffic jam leaving Kathmandu, a bewildering shortcut, and a long bumpy jeep ride to the Gorkha region.  The road leading into Arughat Bazar was new—post 2015 earthquake—and was one of the best roads I’ve seen in Nepal, but it petered out to dirt a few kilometers from the bazar.  We made ourselves at home at a little teahouse by the main road where the gregarious owner was keen to chat with us.  B~~~ charmed the local schoolgirls when we went for a walk.  Tilak, the owner of the trekking company—many of whose employees come from Gorkha, we learned—stopped in to see us.  He’d won an election for a local political office and it was interesting to chat with him. 

The next day—almost five days after leaving DC—we started the trek.  Remember this before you complain about the drive to the ADKs.  Now, the Manaslu Circuit is comparatively unencumbered by roads, but the first two days were spent walking the river valley of the Buddha Gandaki Nadi.  This is the usual, dusty jeep path above the river through predominately Hindu farmlands.  The elevation is quite low (500-600m) and it’s essential a tropical environment. We made quick, easy work of this hiking. 

We stayed in a charming teahouse at Lapubesi and then, the next day, we reached the end of the road and started footpath just as we came into Dobhan (1070m).  We drank beer and watched Bollywood TV, for which Russ had a particular affinity.  A wildfire burned on one of the hills high above the teahouse.

On the third day of the trek, we climbed steeply through an ever narrower river gorge, topping out at a little village where we took a tea break.  The river valley lost its tropical look and here looked drier and rockier.  We continued on catwalks, suspension bridges, and some narrow, slightly perilous trails that rose out on bluffs perched precariously over the river.  Strangely, the most exposed hiking happened on this trek at 1500m.  Falling was definitely not an option. 

We encountered many mule trains moving between the villages and it was a bit of a game to position oneself so they didn’t knock you into the abyss.  In the late afternoon, we crossed a tilting suspension bridge, full of schoolchildren going one way and goats going another, to reach Philim (1590), where we spent the night.  (I started Diamox at this point, for those curious about how the 48 year old and rather plump author handled elevation on this trek.)

Up until the fourth day, though the trail had been far from crowded, we had been hiking with a number of trekkers (perhaps 40 or so).  As we hiked to Bihi Phedi, however, many headed eastwards to the Ganesh Himal trek and Tsum Valley.  Most spoke of this trek as the easier one; I was not familiar with it, though I believe it joins up near Langtang Valley.  I was impressed by the number of folks out doing treks that were not the Annapurna Circuit or Everest Base Camp.  We said goodbye to our fellow travelers and climbed through pine forests, crossed raging Himalayan torrents, and skirted ridiculously sheer bamboo-covered bluffs to reach the teahouses at Bihi Phedi (2130).  These sit a few meters below the town proper.  I was amused by how happy I was not to climb all the way up to the village proper.

On the fifth day, we climbed through an especially lovely pine forest to reach the village of Namruung at 2660m.  Namruung featured a number of very nice and built up teahouses including one that had a German bakery out front.  Indeed, over the succeeding days, we saw a great deal of new construction, most of which featured better woodwork than one often sees.  (Health note: I stopped drinking beer at about 2500m).

Beyond Namruung, the trail has a definite westward bent and parallels the border with Tibet.  At this stage, we’d left the Hindu area very much behind and the villages become much more Tibetan buddhist in character—monasteries, mani walls, prayer wheels.  On the sixth day, we started with a climb to a monastery, then ate lunch at a teahouse in the village of Lhogaon.  We were treated to our first real view of Manaslu and the high peaks of the Himalaya. 

After lunch, we climbed to a picturesque monastery perched on a hillside above the village.  The monks were away on their winter break—many, we were told, returned to Tibet.  We exited the back and climbed (we seemed always to be climbing) to Syalagoon (3520).  This was an alteration to our itinerary that Mahendra had suggested and it proved to be spot on.  The little teahouse had a marvelous view from its roof.  I shot a panorama despite the cold.

Our seventh day was a rest day, but we passed on the luxury of spending two nights in the same spot and instead climbed to Pungen Gumba—an out-and-back to a monastery at the foot of Manaslu (maybe about 4,000m).  Although it started out very cold—well below freezing—this walk was one of my favorite days in Nepal, ever.  Visiting the monastery up against the towering peak of Manaslu was well worth the effort.  We crossed frozen streams and then hiked across the weirdly flat bowl (presumably once filled with glacial ice) to reach the holy site. 

After lunch and lots of photos, we descended via another route to the village of Samagaon (3550m) and a teahouse with a solar powered (and very hot) shower.  Bliss!  Here there was some panic in the teahouse, as a few trekkers were concerned about conditions in Larke Pass—the crux of the route.  They alleged that a meter of snow had fallen in the pass and that it was icy and essentially impassible. They had some scheme that improved a helicopter.  I’m always fascinated by this type of panic.  At Pungen Gumbo, we had seen a dusting of snow, certainly, but I felt these concerns were overblown.  We had yet to encounter hikers retreating from the pass, which would have certainly been the case if conditions were that bad.

On our eighth day, after a quick side trip to the beautiful glacial lake of Birendra Tal, where we added a cairn to the thousands dotting the shore, we hiked through the open valley, gawping at the views all around us. 

Yaks and mani walls marked our progress.  We huffed and puffed our way to Samdo, where we spent a night in a cold teahouse, chatting with a group of Brits and an Australian, who were on a month-long hike and had started by crossing Tsum Valley.  The Australian had done the Annapurna Circuit in the 80s, which must have been amazing.

The ninth day, we climbed to Larke Phedi, a high camp at 4,470m.  The climb was slow going with the altitude affecting us, but we made good headway.  We stopped to take photos of the increasingly awe-inspiring landscape surrounding us. 

At one point, we encountered a woman lying by the side of the trail, as if she had passed out.  We made sure she was okay.  She said she was taking a “nap.”  We reached Larke Phedi in the afternoon.  Three of us had experience with Thorung Phedi and we weren’t expecting much, but the little metal buildings they had erected were fine.  If only the squatter-style privies were not frozen up.  B~~~ and I shared a metal building, which proved way warmer than the uninsulated teahouses at lower elevations.  At this point, I had lost much of my appetite but was otherwise okay.  When I walked in for dinner, Mahendra asked, “How are you?”  I replied, “I’m dying.”  This elicited laughs from the assembled trekkers—there were perhaps 20-30 people in the camp.  I believe Jessica had also had a headache.  But, really, we were doing very well for spending the night at a point higher than any in the continental United States (14,685 feet).

Our crossing of Larke Pass began with an alpine start.  Headlamps beaming, we started our climb at about 4am.  It was never very steep, but I had a slightly vertiginous feeling as we gained elevation in the dark with the peaks looming around me.  It was cold.  We think in the teens with wind—B~~~ and I had awakened to the wind howling around the little shelter.  But we piled on everything we had and climbed steadily, passing all the other groups (all four of us hiked well and fairly swiftly the entire trip).  As dawn came, we marched through the snow, cresting one line of hills after another. 

These little climbs were wearing on the nerves more than the muscles.  I stopped routinely to breathe in and out ten times, as I was concerned to keep my heart rate down, but HAPE never reared its head.  At the most, I’d say there was about a foot or two of snow on the pass, but it was never much of an obstacle as the path had been well tramped down.  We all had micro-spikes, but never stopped to put them on, and we were all four wearing just trailrunners.  By 9am or so, we summited Larke Pass (5106m), the first group to do so.  Photos were taken of our triumph, and then it was time to go down.

Much sometimes gets made about whether Larke La is more difficult than Thorung La, with the consensus being that it is.  It’s difficult for me to compare across more than 10 years, varying fitness levels, and varying skill levels as a hiker.  I would say that I experienced Thorung La as the harder day and I was younger and fitter when I did it, though much less experienced.  The descent off Larke Pass was long and full of switchbacks, but it was not exposed.  We did the descent with some snow underfoot and the worst part was certainly the ball-bearing-like gravel, which meant that one’s foot was prone to slipping from time to time.  Honestly, though, there are many ADK peaks that have more perilous descents.  I did slide a few times on the way down, but this was not a cause for much concern.

But no ADK peak has a view like those that greet you as you come down off the shoulder of Larke Peak.  Essentially, you’re descending into a gargantuan bowl that looks like something that should not exist on this particular planet.  Away in the distance are the Annapurnas.  To your left, is the Manaslu massif.  And down you go.  From Larke La at 5100m to Dharapani at 1860m, we were going to lose about 11,000 feet in two days of hiking.  Which is a lot.

We reached the orderly village of Bimthang in the Annapurna Conservation District in the afternoon and relished the oxygen and comparative warmth of 3700m.  After a night of well-earned rest, we continued our descent, traversing in one day through the different environments we had climbed through over nine days.  We drank beers at lunch in the garden of a pleasant teahouse.  The villages became more prosperous as we descended, with orchards and walled off farms.  Thoche (1900m) seems like a particularly attractive village—we stopped off and drank a coke in a sunny courtyard.  Towards the end of the day, we walked on roads and crossed suspension bridges to reach the village of Dharapani where, ten years before, I had first heard of the Manaslu Circuit.

We enjoyed a fine night at the Kangaroo Guest House and Restaurant, perched on the much maligned road that has so changed the Annapurna Circuit.  We chatted with hikers who were just starting their treks on that fabled path, performed our closing ceremony to thank Mahendra and the porters (Bhim lived in Chitwan and would be leaving us well before Kathmandu, while Vishnu would ride with us into the city), handed out tips, and generally made merry.

People will be curious about my comparison between the Annapurna Circuit and the Manaslu Circuit.  As we drove from Dharapani to Besi Sahar—making use of the road that has so transformed that region—we saw trekkers trudging grimly up the dusty road.  I could not recommend that people do that trek in those conditions, though Russ and Jessica assure me the alternate paths are quite nice.  In many cases, you could see a well developed alternate footpath on the other side of the river.  Why, then, were so many trekkers on the road?!  The Manaslu Circuit avoids all of this.  Relatively little of it is on road; the scenery is amazing; it is much less heavily traveled.  All in all, it is the essence of what a Nepalese trek ought to be.  It was an entirely satisfying 11 days.

But a part of me yearns for the Annapurna Circuit I walked.  Part of this comes from development, of course, but the villages along the Annapurna Circuit were larger and the region more prosperous.  Villages like Manang, Muktinath, Kagbeni, Marta, Tatopani were very attractive places to visit and Jen and I sampled some of them again on our way to Upper Mustang.  So the Annapurna Circuit has a lot to offer, too, but you will want to learn about the alternative routes if you’re planning to hike it in 2020 or beyond.  Perhaps I am just an old man asking “ou sont les neiges d’antan?” (where are the snows of yesteryear?), but I’m not entirely sure the Manaslu Circuit can replace the Annapurna Circuit. 

I also want to be clear that I support the Nepalese desire to develop.  Over time, the footpaths can be moved elsewhere.  My impression, though, just now, is that it’s going to take Annapurna hikers some extra effort to move off the road.

Friday, 12/6, after an exhausting 12 hour jeep ride ending with clouds of air pollution in Kathmandu, we reached our Hotel Manaslu, which mean hot showers and good food from the buffet (we were all too exhausted to do much else).  The next day, after some quick shopping in Thamel, we headed to the airport and retraced our route to Abu Dhabi and IAD.  I binged the Spanish heist show Casa de Papel on the long flight back.

In summary, we had a great and very harmonious group.  Honestly, our trekking company did exceptionally well.  Everything went as planned and on schedule.  No one got notably sick or injured, though there were the usual stomach and altitude-induced complaints.  Russ, Jessica, and Brian, thanks for doing this trip with me!  We had a fantastic group!  I hope everyone enjoys the assembled photos, which do a great job of conveying the hike.

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