I had been yearning for a trek in Nepal for a couple of years - principally after hearing from a number of trekkers that Nepal is the place to go to find the best trekking. I can’t say that I would rate Nepal as the world’s #1 trekking destination myself after this particular trip - but I can see the attraction. The mountains are big… really, really big, and the people friendly.
I was originally planning to do the Annapurna circuit (map), but came to the conclusion that really I was at least 3 years too late given the new road, and ever increasing commercialisation of the circuit. You can read a little more about the road in this NY times travel article, or look for the latest reports about the Annapurna Circuit on the Thorn Tree forums. I tried looking around for an organized trip that would allow me to start at Besishar, walk round over the pass, then fly out from Jomsom bypassing the bulk of the road on the western side of the circuit, but none of the main companies I found offered this as an option.
The Manaslu Circuit
Whilst doing research into the Annapurna region, I discovered several mentions of the Manaslu circuit just to the east of Annapurna - another long-distance trek, circuiting Manaslu - the eighth highest mountain at 8,156 m. According to wikipedia the trail is 177km, takes around 3 weeks to hike, and was only opened to trekking in 1991. It starts at around 500m altitude, climbing to the highest point on the trail the Larkya La pass at 5,235m.
Challenge-wise this trek appeared similar to the Annapurna circuit, however offered one significant benefit - in that at the moment it is a lot less developed than the Annapurna circuit. The lack of development means fewer trekkers, fewer lodges and hence most trekkers do the circuit under canvas. This appealed to me because when camping - you’re either cooking for yourself, or you’re travelling with your own cooking crew and kitchen staff - so the chances of getting good, healthy food are significantly higher. I have no first-hand experience of lodge based trekking in Nepal - but I’ve read reports suggesting that lodge owners might not pay the utmost attention to food hygine - because the guests that dine in their lodges will be many miles away before any lapses become apparent. This isn’t the case if you’re travelling with your own chef!
I looked around for a reputable travel company - and whilst I found a few Nepal based options, decided to book again with Exodus - as the prices seemed quite reasonable, and they haven’t sent me on a bad trip yet.
I did some research on when to go - and found that whilst the main season runs from September to November or December; September and October are the busiest months, the skies are most likely to be clear in November/December, however in December the chance of having to turn back at the pass starts to become a concern (not a good prospect). I choose November. Before I set off, I checked the weather for Arughat Bazaar (the start of the trek), Samba (4,000m 2/3rds of the way up), and Larkya Pass (the highest point at 5,188m).
As this route passed well over 3,000m altitude sickness was a concern, however the rate at which you climb over the first 2 weeks means that problems are unlikely. I found that the BaseCampMD site provided the most comprehensive, and informative info on AMS. I decided not to take any extra medicines along with me on the trip after reading the information on this site, and didn’t miss them.
I had a hard time finding any route-maps for the circuit online, but that won’t be a concern for you - as I’ve published my track-logs below on a Google Earth map. Maps of the route are available in Thamel for 500 NPR, called the “Around Manaslu Trekking Map”, with an ISBN of 978-9937-8062-7-5. When we arrived we discovered that our thoughtful tour guide had a stack of maps waiting for us, so we didn’t need to go map shopping.
I wanted a smaller camera system for this trip - so had swapped my Canon EOS 500D and Tokina 11-16mm F/2.8 for a Panasonic Lumix G2 and Olympus 9-18mm Lens. I swapped my rucksack camera strap solution over from the Canon to the new system - and it worked well (although I did need to use a smaller Zing Cover). In addition to my camera gear, I also took my Chiruca Boa boots, North Face Duffel Bag, Dueter ACT Lite 40+10 Rucksack, Therm-a-Rest Prolite Plus, Mountain Equipment Dreamcatcher Sleeping Bag, amongst other stuff.
As I had a few Star-Alliance air-miles to spend, I decided to take a flight from France to Mumbai on miles (on business!), then to buy a return from Mumbai to Katmandu. At first I was worried about getting through Mumbai without an Indian transit visa because I was travelling on two separate tickets, but I shouldn’t have been. If you’re connecting via Mumbai, the airline that brings you in is responsible for transferring your luggage and checking you in for the next flight. Just make sure to talk to someone from the ground crew at your arrival gate - rather than rushing directly to the “transit lounge”. I posted some more detailed info on Mumbai transfers to the ThornTree forum.
Visas are available on arrival in Nepal, for which you need 2 passport photos, a pen and $40 (for a 30 day visa) or equivalent in some other major currency. It is best not to change too much currency at the airport - because cash machines or kiosks in Katmandu will provide a better rate (and our hotel wasn’t that bad either). Don’t change too much into NPR though - as you will only be able to change back 15% of what you changed on your return - and you will need receipts to prove it.
Just before you leave the airport building - there’s a pre-paid taxi service, offering tickets into the city for 450 NPR - which may be a little more than the going rate, but it certainly saves any hassle over haggling.
Shopping in Katmandu
On arrival in Katmandu, I went shopping… Thamel is full of trekking gear shops containing a selection of knock-off gear as well as some authentic kit. You can easily tell the difference from the price - with shops willing to haggle on the knock-offs, but rarely on the true gear. If you really want the genuine article - then North Face, Lowe Alpine, Mountain Hardware and Patagonia all have branded shops in the area (and I’ve marked a few on the map below)
I was keen to pickup a good pair of genuine hiking poles after reading a story about a chap with cheap twist-lock poles finding that one gave way, causing him to tumble down a mountain. I ended up with a pair of flip-lock Black Diamond Trekking Poles, and sold one to a fellow trekker. I can highly recommend the flip-lock variety over the twist-lock as they’re easy to adjust the length as you’re changing from up to down on the trail. Even with the lack of bartering - they were still around 30-40% less than I would have been able to buy them in the UK - although it did take some work to find them.
Thamel is also a good place to find a pharmacy, if you’re looking to stock up on some broad spectrum antibiotics. Some do, but I didn’t bother - and thankfully I didn’t regret it. If I was travelling through Nepal again, I would consider picking up some ciprofloxacin, just in case.
Finally… after all of the preparation and travel - we set off to see the sights of the city, visiting first the Panch Deval temple and funeral pyres, then up to get a view of the whole Pashupatinath complex. Watching the fires smoldering from across the river was a sobering experience.
We then moved on to Boudhanath Stupa - which is one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the city, and one of the largest spherical Stupas anywhere. It is certainly ancient, said to date from around 464-797 BC (or should I say CE?). Despite appearing to host a row of windows around the circumference the Stupa is in-fact solid, but may contain religious relics. Either way - there’s no way of getting inside. Surrounding the Stupa were a number of shops both sell, and creating the a selection of Mandalas.
After lunch overlooking the Boudhanath Stupa we continues onwards to one more - the Swayambhunath Stupa on the top of a hill populated by monkeys, giving rise to its other name The Monkey Temple. Surrounding the Stupa is a Buddhist monastery, a variety of shrines and temples along with a museum and library and selection of shops.
This was also our first sighting of the massive prayer wheels - almost the size of a person, and often found in the monasteries across Nepal.
The following day - we hit the road towards Arughat Bazaar - our first camp - and by hit the road - I mean we hit the road. The main road from Katmandu along the Trisuli river was fine, but once we turned north the road deteriorated into a long, dusty, bumpy track, sending everyone in the coach skyward on every bump. This journey was one of the only 2 things I really didn’t appreciate on the trek, but other than getting out and walking for another week - there really is no alternative.
From Arughat Bazaar we started walking North, through many small villages full of people going about their daily tasks. This young chap was out collecting ferns and foliage, probably to feed his cattle.
The walking was fairly easy for most of the first week and a half - covering 10-15 km per day, and ascending around 700 m. Most of the time we were trekking alongside the Budi Gandaki Nadi river, climbing as it did up to the glaciers on the side of Manaslu. If you look through the full set of my photos, you’ll see plenty of valley photographs - as we were climbing in the valley for around the first 8 days.
Camping was generally on small camping areas, either built as such or converted from fields. One of our early camps was on a long-thin terrace, which had obviously previously been used for farming, and converted for tourism within the last few years. Most of the time the sites were in small hamlets, or villages - with the locals children usually happy to see us and pose for photos (with permission).
Getting closer to Tibet
As we climbed higher, and got closer to Tibetan territory, the number of Buddhist religious constructions increased - both the Mani stone walls at the entrance to each village, and the occasional Stupa.
Crossing the many suspension bridges became a daily occurrence, and while most were in good repair we did encounter a few that required a little caution when crossing (mostly to hang onto the trekking poles and camera kit). We didn’t see any that were quite as dramatic as this one in Parbat.
After what seemed like an age of walking, we finally made it clear of the of the valley, and were able to get our first good view of the mountains. The panorama below was shot hand-held in Shyla (or Syalagaon) as the river valley widens and you climb out of the steep V-shape valleys that we’d been in for the majority of the trek. You can get an impression of this from looking at the photo location on the Picasa version of the image below.
We were still surrounded by people, their animals and villages as we continued to climb. This chap seemed to insist on having his photo taken several times as we were walking, and followed me for about 10 minutes. I stopped and managed to get this photo of him and his buddy taking a good considerate look at me.
By this point we were climbing past 3500m, and it was beginning to get colder in the evenings, but still perfectly comfortable for walking during the day. The shorts had been relegated to the bottom of my pack though…
In Samagaon we learned that the weather was beginning to look unsettled in the coming days, and that there was another large group on the circuit from Korea. Our guide and the trip Sirdar made the call that to be sure of getting a good camp at Larke Bazaar and to ensure that we’d get over the pass (and not have to turn back), that we would skip the acclimatization day we were supposed to take at Samagaon and head over the pass a day early.
The prospect of having to backtrack and retrace our steps at double speed, then take the bouncy bus back to Katmandu wasn’t worth contemplating - and I jokingly suggested we split the $1,500 helicopter fee for the trip back.
Walking in to Samdo at 3690m I managed to grab this pano showing the village and campsite in the background, and tail end of one of the Syacha glaciers to the left. At this point I did have a splitting headache, but the guide assured me that it was likely due to the cold - and that if I could still walk and talk that it wasn’t AMS. I took a couple of painkillers, and the ache subsided (which I understand wouldn’t have been the case if it had been more serious).
After a short break we walked up the hill to the right behind Samdo to improve our acclimatization, and got a good look at the Samdo glacier on the right in the distance. We learned that Samdo was the last permanent settlement before the pass.
The following day, we walked up the valley in the centre of the panorama image above towards Dharmashala. The shot to the left shows the view back down the valley to Samdo.
Dharmashala was an encampment on the side of the valley at 4470m, consisting of a couple of recently built stone huts and a camping areas. From here we had a good view onto the Larke glacier - the right side of which we would be climbing up the following morning.
The campsite itself was unfortunately surrounded by trash and other camp detritus. We were using boiled water rather than bottled throughout the whole trip for our own drinking water - however it was obvious that not all trekkers were quite as careful.
The next morning we were awoken early (probably around 2am) to make the final push to the pass. I think I remember reaching out of my Sleeping Bag and checking my thermometer to discovering that the temperature was around 4 below zero - so proceeded to put on every warm layer I had (3 layers of Icebreaker, fleece, Rab Neutrino Vest, and goretex), and donned a warm hat with my head-torch sporting fresh batteries.
From then it was a long, slow slog up the side of the moraine in the darkness until we began to see the sun rising behind us.
We made it to the top at around 9:30am, and took the usual selection of photos, pausing just long enough to wait for most of the rest group to arrive. As it was still pretty cold up the top, and didn’t want to take the descent down the other side in the high-winds that were predicted, most of the group didn’t wait for the last two to make it to the top (sorry guys!). As I hate going down-hill, and the route down could have been icy, I was keen to give myself as much time as possible on the route down.
From the pass, we trekked for probably another 1 km along the plateau, and then started the descent. We had been told that the year before this path was iced up - and the group were roped up for the descent, however this year it was mostly clear. I donned my Kahtoola MICROspikes for some of the route down - and they certainly helped improve my traction, but the path wasn’t snowy & icy for long.
The down section on this day was the second of the two worst bits of the trip (the first being the bouncy coach) - with plenty of steep scree sections causing most of the hikers to slip at some time or another. We made it down eventually though, after stopping for a packed lunch in the sun and admiring the mountains surrounding the Bimtang glacier.
We thought we were getting to the bottom as we got close to the glacier and turned south; however the clouds came in and plunged us into a low, cold mist, hiding our destination from view. It felt like we must be close to the camp, but it turned out that we had to walk another 3.5km to Bimthang, arriving at about 3pm taking the day’s total to 14km trekked with around 800m of ascent and 1500m descent. This was certainly the toughest day on the trek, and the longest one (given the early start).
We spent the next day wondering around Bimthang as we had a day to spare from missing our acclimatization day before the pass. I spent it trying to get some interesting HDR shots down by the stream, and the others set off to explore the lake to the north (Ponkar Tal I think), the mountains close to camp or the foot of the Bhimdang glacier. The couple that went down to the foot of the glacier found a set of paw-print from the rare Himalayan snow leopard. I just found some yak tracks…
The next few days were long down-days, both in descent and km as we traced the route of the Dudh Khola river on its route from the glacier we had just passed down to the Annapurna circuit. We joined the Annapurna circuit at Dharapani, instantly exchanging our own mountain trails for one full of yaks transporting goods, and clean looking tourists starting their trip northwards.
Overall it was a good 3 weeks of walking, taking me higher than I’ve ever been before with no real altitude issues. I hinted in the intro that it wasn’t my favourite long-distance hike - which I think I’d still have to consider the Tour de Mont Blanc for the variety - but it was certainly a great experience.
Photographs, route and altitude
I’ve embedded a selection of my photos from the trip below - which you can view within this page, within Picasa itself, or embedded within the map below. You can also view the highlights in my Nepal album. All images were shot with my Panasonic Lumix G2 and mostly with my Olympus 9-18mm Lens
You can see the route we took, along with the photos and some key points in this Google maps viewer, or to see it full-screen use the full screen preview of my Manaslu Circuit tracklog, or download the KMZ file for use in Google Earth on your desktop.
This chart shows the approximate altitude profile of the walk, as measured by my Garmin Oregon 300 for the main sections of the route (and one acclimatization walk). I’ve excluded the short evening walks as they didn’t add much distance.
You can see that we gained around 4650m total from start to the highest point, over 130km, although this doesn’t count all of the ups and downs that we had to do on the way. To understand the scope of those - scroll down to the next chart.
This table shows the total distance covered each day, and elapsed time (including breaks) between starting and stopping each day (approximately). As you can see here the total vertical ascent was over 10,000m - or more than 10km up, and the total route took us in a circuit of around 210km.