Dust, Dirt, Sunshine, Numb Fingers, Rice, Transport Issues, Diarrhoea, Constipation, sore feet, tan lines, bartering, laughter, card games, noodles, Rakshi.....all words that can help to sum up one incredible trip of a lifetime to the Nepal Himalaya.
In November 2017 we took a team out to Nepal to complete the Manaslu Circuit, a trek which is now regarded as one of the best Nepal has to offer. This blog is designed to give you an insight into our experience, the trek itself and what to expect from a trip to the Nepal Himalaya.
There are many itineraries listed in guidebooks and online for the Manaslu Circuit, but ours was to be a 13 day trek, plus two days of travel to get there and back. Our total trip duration door to door from the UK was 21 days - a fairly standard duration for most substantial treks in Nepal, especially if you are planning on taking on a trekking peak such as Mera, Island or Lobuche East.
Day 2 - Arrival (Day 1 is leaving the UK)
We landed in a familiar Kathmandu Airport at about 8pm and I was instantly happy to be back to the country that I hold so dear. Now my third trip to Nepal, but my first work based trip with clients. Within minutes the paperwork onslaught starts as you are required to complete a small arrival form and then a 30 Day Tourist Visa Application. The Visa can be applied for here in the UK by either sending off your passport to the embassy or by visiting a webpage, however I found the webpage glitchy so opted to just do it in country. There are now touch screens which help you through the process, and once it spits out a receipt you go and pay your visa fee ($40USD - now accepted in any currency however), flash your passport to immigration and you're on your way to baggage reclaim. In typical Nepali fashion our bags were waiting for us in Baggage reclaim - in a pile on the floor next to the conveyor belt.
We were met outside by Siddick from Basanta Adventure Trekking & Expeditions (BATE) who was to transport us to our residence in Thamel. I have a long relationship with BATE and they were to be our hosts in country for the duration of the trek - the reasons for hiring additional Nepali guides will soon become evident to anyone wondering why I may do this...
Day 3 - Familiarisation Day
It's always well worth building a day for finalising bits and pieces before heading off to your respective treks. You will no doubt be tired from the travel and it's just great to settle in to the sights, sounds and smells Nepal has to offer. Depending on where you are trekking you may also need to sort permits. We had multiple permits to sort as the Manaslu region is a semi-restricted area, but we were also entering the Annapurna Conservation Area, so more paperwork was required. Again, BATE took the helm on organising this information for us. Kathmandu is quite a full on experience, but a fun one for sure. It is likely you will stay in the Thamel area which is the main tourist district. This area reminds me a lot of Keswick in the fact that the type of shops are not that varied, there are just many of them! If you want to buy fake outdoor kit this is the place to be, as well as an ideal spot for anyone partial to Tiger Balm, Chess Sets, Singing Bowls, Prayer Flags....the list goes on, and on, and on....
We spent a our afternoon with a tour guide who took us on an extended Temple tour of Kathmandu. On this trip we visited the 'Living Goddess' and also the incredible Monkey Temple that stands high above Kathmandu. Be careful with the monkeys however as some of them have a tendency to jump at you as I found out.
Our tour lasted about 4 hours, but the benefits of such a trip were soon to be realised....
Day 4 - Kathmandu to Soti Khola
An early rise saw us jump in a couple of 'Jeeps' to head to the start of our trek, an estimated 7-8 hours drive away. Our guide Netra who has 25 years of experience suggested we take the opportunity to drive past the usual start point of Arughat and start from Soti Khola. We would avoid a day of low altitude walking on uninteresting trails and add the spare day on at the end to get us to a nicer finishing point - we agreed unanimously.
The calamities of the day started before the drivers had even turned the keys as the lead 'Jeep' driver refused to put bags on the roof rack of his vehicle as it was insecure. The bags were piled in the back and with it so were 4 porters into the back of ours (a seat barely wide enough for 3 adults!)
It took ages to get out of Kathmandu itself. The traffic is beyond mad and it is amazing there are not more incidents. The population of Kathmandu is approximately 4 million and it feels like they all own a car, bike, bus or lorry and travel on the same bit of road at the same time. We eventually got out of Kathmandu and started cruising towards the hills. A few hours rolled on and we then hit a bit of a jam on a hilly section. It transpired the rain that had fallen a few days early had turned the road in to a bit of a mud-bath and the vehicles ahead were unwilling to risk it.
As we were all out of the two 'Jeeps' the lead driver took a run up and flew in to the muddy mess....
A few meters later and the 'Jeep' was static with the rear wheels going ten to the dozen. It had become clear to us all that these so called 'Jeeps' were not even 4 wheel drive. Calamity number two had arrived. As with any good roadside issue in Nepal there was a solid crowd of 30 odd people casting their opinions on how to solve this problem. People were bouncing on the rear of the vehicle, pushing and pulling, but it was stuck. My mind was racing as to what we were going to do as the vehicle vehicle was stuck fast, and the road ahead was a total unknown even if we could get it through this section - of which there was an even muddier bit to come. Everest Base Camp...Langtang....the options were racing through.
Soon enough Netra appeared and said he had solved our predicament. He had walked up past the mud-bath and found a large 4 wheel drive Tourist bus coming the other way - completely empty. I'm unsure of how the conversation went, or how many rupees were exchanged but the driver agreed to take us to Soti Khola. One thing I do know is that if we didn't have Netra there with us I would probably not have wangled such a deal. We pulled the bags from the 'Jeeps' and left the drivers without much of a second thought (sorry!). Our bags were piled on the bus and we were good to go, well after calamity number three had been sorted....we were facing the wrong way.
There are three common themes with Nepali mountain roads; 1, They're often very bumpy, 2, they're often very narrow with limited passing places, 3, they're often bound by a steep drop certain to kill everyone on board the tumbling vehicle. This particular section of road ticked all the boxes. Fortunately for us the driver of the bus turned out to be the Senna of the bus driving world and with that a 45 point turn was embarked upon. One small bit of overpower on the throttle and we'd all be heading face first down a valley wall...oh what fun. Alas, we survived the turn and we celebrated with a lot of cheering. We were back on track and one thing had become clear - spending 4 hours visiting temples and building up good karma was time very well spent!
Days 5-8 - Soti Khola to Namrung
The Manaslu Circuit is listed as a 'Hard' or 'Tough' Trek in most guides and the first 4 days will certainly help you realise this as you will be walking for between 6-8 hours each day. In a typical day you will ascend and descend many hundreds of metres even if your next stop is only a few hundred above where you slept the previous night. The trail on these 4 days is however breathtaking. You soon experience the delights of trekking in the Himalaya as you cross multiple suspension bridges, walk above steep drops, through tiny villages and under gorgeous canopies.
Most days will start at around 7:30am, and by 11-12 you will have stopped in a teahouse along the route to have some lunch. We often went for Dhal Bhat, the local dish of Rice and lentil soup. The afternoon would then consist of a few more hours trekking along with the chore of gulping down litre upon litre of water. Although by the time you get to Namrung you're still only at 2,500m and not really in the zone of Altitude Sickness it is great to get into the habbit from the off of consuming 4-5 litres a day, including any soups or teas you may drink. With this said, we were encountering 26-30 degree heat throughout the day and so getting the water in wasn't too hard.
Day 9 - Namrung to Lho
This was a really special day, and a bit of a treat in the fact that we were only walking until lunch time. The walk to Lho really makes you feel as though you're entering the heart of the Himalaya. As we neared the village a tall, snow covered and twin peaked pyramid appeared in our sights - it was Manaslu. We all had to scrape our jaws off the floor as we gawped at this 8000m giant we had come to walk around.
We spent most of our day on the roof terrace sunbathing and staring at the peaks that now surrounded us. We also enjoyed a short walk up to the local monastery.
Days 10-12 - Lho to Samdo
Our walk to Samagoun from Lho was also equally as impressive, and as we approached the village itself we did enjoy some actual flat ground - not just 'Nepali Flat' as Netra and Passang used to call the ups and downs. It was amusing when I showed Netra a picture of Scafell Pike and told him it was the highest mountain in England at 978m an his response was 'our mountains start at 5,000m...'
Samagoun to Samdo was another shorter day and we were now finally getting ourselves in to the meat of the altitude at 3,800m. Samdo is a windy village with a smattering of lodges bolted on to what must be a very old settlement. Again we spent the afternoon chilling and resting our now tired legs.
One thing that some team members found tough was the wild difference in temperatures. During the day we would be trekking in T-shirts and shorts but then at night you'd be piling the layers on and bouncing around in the dining hall waiting for your dinner so you could promptly jump in to your sleeping bag soon after. Two top tips there - Take a good Insulating Jacket and take a good sleeping bag! You will spend a lot of time in them!
Day 12 of our trip, and day 8 of the trek and we had our first scheduled 'rest day'. Rest days whilst trekking at altitude are however rarely that as you use the opportunity to aid your acclimatisation. Before heading out on your trek it is well worth doing some basic reading surrounding Altitude Sickness to ensure you're doing everything possible to prevent it. Hydration, eating well and not gaining too many metres of height in a single day will all help prevent it. Your itinerary should be designed to prevent rapid ascent, and 'Climbing High, Sleeping Low' where possible is the best option. Our morning consisted of a walk out of the village with 650m of ascent, taking us to 4,400m - the same height as our destination the day after. The views from our high point were absolutely fantastic, and we must have all easily taken a few dozen pictures each!
Day 13 - Samdo to Dharamasala
The aim of the day was to get ourselves to Dharamasala, a basic lodging at the start of the Larkya La Pass. It's an easy and enjoyable walk to the Dharamasala, which is as before taken slowly due to the height we were now trekking at.
Our guide informed us that this would be the most basic place on the entire trip due to it's location, and that we were actually better off in tents rather than the shared dormer style rooms inside the lodge. Well Netra wasn't wrong about Dharamasala, it was literally one lodge and a series of tents. Unfortunately the area is government owned and as a result there is no opportunity for locals to develop, nor are the government willing to develop it. We did enjoy our first snow of the trip that night, and as I crawled in to my tent at 5pm to go to sleep ready for our 4am get up I could hear the snow sliding down the side of my tent. What did tomorrow have in store for us as I drifted off to sleep? I awoke just a few hours later as I needed a pee (the joys of being so hydrated!) and as I stuck my head out of the tent I was absolutely amazed by the perfect starry night. The snow had subsided and unveiled the prettiest starlit sky I have ever seen, with snowcapped Himalayan peaks acting as an amazing bottom border. As it was pretty darn parky I soon retreated back to my tent and spent a restless night waiting for 4am.
Day 14 - Dharamasala to Bhimtang via the Larkya La Pass
The 'Village' erupted in to life at about 4am as everyone was getting up to do the same thing - head over the Larkya La Pass. It's worth the early start in order to get to the top of the pass in good weather ensure you get to witness the ace views it has to offer. After a few spoonfuls of the most disgusting porridge I've ever eaten we were suited and booted and ready to go. For me the following couple of hours were some of the best of the trek. It was pretty cold as we slowly made progress towards the pass. The nighttime vistas were still incredible, and they only improved as the sun started to cast it's orange glow on the 6,000m peaks that surrounded us. The sun was welcome and it brought life back in to our numb fingers and toes, and soon enough the layers started to peel off.
At 9am we reached the pass, with a few members of the team having found the morning pretty tough work. We were now at over 5,100m, the highest point of our trek. Most importantly we had gotten ourselves over the crux of the route, and defeated a huge psychological barrier as to whether any of us would succumb to altitude sickness (despite our best efforts).
The pass day is also the longest on the trek, as after reaching the top we now had to descend over 1300m down to the village of Bhimtang. The first section of this is done down an extremely loose scree slope, one which claimed at least half a dozen slips from each team member. We continued to churn up the mileage and before long we arrived at a lovely lodge in Bhimtang - which compared to the previous nights dwelling felt a bit like Butlins!
Days 15 - 17 - Bhimtang to Besi Shahar
The final few days of our trek were still just as stunning as the first few days. We were descending back down to the foothills through forests and along paths high above the river crashing below. As the air got thicker again the trekking also got easier and easier. It was also nice to not have to be smashing back so much water in fear of sickness. One of the main highlights of the few days Hotel Heaven View in Dharipani - Hot showers, wifi, gorgeous rooms. It was such a treat.
Our original finish point was to be Jagat however we trekked past this to Gheru. On this section we followed a section of the Annapurna Circuit in reverse. The lodge at Gheru was a bit more basic than our previous night, but the food was simply incredible. Quite possibly the best Dhal Bhat we'd eaten (and we'd eaten a lot) as well as the best Tibetan bread in the morning. The 111m waterfall over the valley was also quite an impressive view to enjoy over breakfast Our final morning of trekking was just a few hours on easy trails as we made way for Ngadi, where we got collected by a bus and driven to Besi Shahar.
Days 18 - 21 - Kathmandu to UK
Day 18 was spent enjoying a 6 hour drive back to Kathmandu, fortunately this time with no road based calamities! We enjoyed a celebratory meal that evening at the infamous Pizza restaurant Fire & Ice. The following day was spent buying some presents as well as chilling in the Garden of Dreams, a beautiful peace garden that blocks out the hustle and bustle of Thamel and the outside world.
Our final day was spent packing and sorting bits before heading to the airport for our evening flight. The trip was over and three weeks had come and gone, but what a fab few weeks it had been.
The Manaslu Circuit is a fabulous trek and I can totally see why some are calling it 'the best trek in Nepal'. We witnessed some work being done to extend the road past Soti Khola and although the Nepalese are entitled to do what they wish to their countryside (as we have done here) it really will change the feel of the trek if there was a road lingering nearby and it would be a shame. So if you're keen to do this trek I would highly recommend doing it within the next few years. The best thing about many of the days was that the views were ever changing, and it seemed each corner rounded would provide another jaw dropping moment. The trek is certainly a tough one, so if you're planning on doing it you have to be hill fit. We walked every day for 13 days, so having that strength and recovery built up will put you in good stead and you'll enjoy it more. An alternative would be to extend your itinerary, but spending more than 2 weeks on the trail (especially for novices) may be a bit much for some.
I'd like to say a big thanks to Basant and his team at Basanta Adventure Trekking and Expeditions for organising all our in-country logistics. Thanks to Netra our guide for your unfailing knowledge and experience, and to Passang for helping to look after the team too.
Thanks to EDZ Layering for providing the team with some great tees, as well as myself with some kit to wear and test - reviews coming soon. This thanks also goes to Ardblair Sports for providing some Aku Alterra's to test!
Finally thanks to the team for joining Lakeland Mountain Guides on our inaugural International Trek.
If you're keen to head to Nepal for a similar experience, and want to be part of a small and personal team why not join us in November 2019 as we head to climb the 6,119m peak Lobuche East. Drop us an email at Lakelandmountainguides@live.co.uk to register your interest.