On the Circuit of Manaslu

On the tenth day my western European core revolted. Up until then I'd accepted the dirt, hard beds, hole-in-the-floor loos and no loo paper, low wattage light bulbs (if any), and lack of running water. Up until then I'd accepted the fact I'd be drinking water that tasted of a swimming pool; and that I'd worn the same clothes continuously for 48 hours - including hat and gloves.

The other side of the pass - Bimtang, 174 kb
The other side of the pass - Bimtang
© Sarah Flint

On the tenth day something clicked and said: 'no more of this. Give me a brightly lit pristine bathroom, a memory foam mattress, central heating and a pile of clean clothes… and give it to me now.'

On the tenth day I'd finished my first Himalayan trek in Nepal, 100 miles around the world's 8th highest mountain: Manaslu, standing at 8163m.

On the first day my mountain man guide Sarki Sherpa and I set out at dawn from the chaotic, dusty, colourful city of Kathmandu. On the fringe of the city, among the rubble and rubbish, we got into a tired minibus with more than enough people in it already. We followed the foam and swirl of a hurried river to Gorkha – a town sliding down a hill - where we had a moment to stretch our stiffening limbs before pushing our way into the waiting coach which was crammed like an ants' nest with villagers from all the villages near and far.

"As dawn touched the surrounding 7000m and 8000m peaks with its rosy glow I looked back and we were alone. The silence was overwhelming"

The coach lurched along dusty winding roads for hours, like a boat in a stormy sea but at last, as the sun became golden, all but a few villagers disappeared and I could breathe again. We fell out of the coach into the centre of a small village called Arket Bazar where I had my first night in a Nepali guesthouse, first taste of basic sanitation and my first of many meals of the infamous but nutritious Dal Bhat (rice and lentils).

Arket is where the road ends and the path starts and we'd hoped to be able get some of it under our feet on the first day. In the next two days we caught up with the itinerary and we started as we intended to continue - rising early, 6.30 most days, eight hours of walking and in bed early, by 8 or 9pm .

A well-kept stone path meandered along the banks of the river Budhi Gandhaki, sometimes crossing bleached river beaches, sometimes passing high over it on hanging bridges that muttered and moved under our feet. We followed and slept by the sound of this river for days.

The long descent overlooking the Annapurna range, 141 kb
The long descent overlooking the Annapurna range
© Sarah Flint

We saw banana trees and giant poinsettias that glared red among the rice terraces stepping up the valley sides until they touched the sky. Gradually the valleys deepened into gorges of lush bamboo and rhodendron where we saw snakes, monkeys and the highest waterfalls in the world. We heard the 'chaa' from mule train drivers and the jangle of the bells around the animals' necks as they bustled towards us to push us off the path.

The fourth day found us at Ghap. We'd made 1540m of ascent that day but it felt oh so much more: more ups and downs than the South West Coastal Path. I sweated until I felt I'd left a trail behind me. Here the jungle gave way to forest and then the forest disappeared. There had been glimpses of far-off white tipped mountains before but now they appeared in all their grandeur - vaster than I'd ever imagined.

On the way we came to a low wall that divided the path where a long forgotten artist had covered slate-thin slabs with the delicate features of a cloud-sitting Buddha and the poetic curves of the text of ancient mantra. Sarki murmured his own mantra and carefully passed by clockwise; and each time we came across a Mani wall we always walked by it clockwise. As we approached villages, we passed under 'chortens' – walk-through Buddhist shrines with prayer wheels and beautifully painted plaques of Buddha. Prayer flags provided random splashes of moving colour in the landscape.

On the afternoon of the fifth day we were at Lho (3180m) – a busy village overlooked by a large Buddhist monastery. It was cold in the mornings now and our walking days were shortened to four or five hours to allow me to acclimatise. Determined not to surrender to the Diamox I'd so easily obtained over the counter in Kathmandu, I drank water until I leaked.

It was rare to see other trekkers on the path in the first few first days. I'd chosen the Manaslu circuit to avoid the crowds: It's a conservation area which imposes a quota. The guest houses were where we met Aussies, Russians and French (a lot of French) - but during the fifth day Sarki and I had noticed trekkers coming back down the path. Odd, as this is meant to be a circuit. Sarki got the uncomfortable gossip from the passing guides and porters: the Larkye Pass was closed - snow and a bitter wind had made them all turn tail. The idea of re-tracing our steps didn't inspire me, but Sarki was confident - luckily for us a local Buddhist monk with special powers had been given some money to spin his prayer wheels and make the weather more amenable.

Prayer flags on Larkye Pass, 135 kb
Prayer flags on Larkye Pass
© Sarah Flint
Local children asking for balloons, 184 kb
Local children asking for balloons
© Sarah Flint

At Lho the guest houses were so full of retreating trekkers as well as those pushing on that we stayed at a Home Stay which meant I got to see how the locals lived. In the kitchen-living-everything-room three dirty children laughed and played among the lives of their ancestors and took apart a yak butter shrine. I was offered hot potatoes, local toxic brew and food from the mountains – and in the morning tasted the infamous Yak butter tea made by the children's' father in his brown gown and his long Tibetan hair. The tea was almost palatable.

The path on the way to the next stop, Sama (3530m), was a brown track. We were now above the tree line and surrounded by Himalayas hung with glaciers that flowed like stilled seas. In the clear afternoon light, after a lunch of garlic soup and milky tea to help stave off altitude sickness, I washed my sweat-soaked shirt in the wide shallow river. The grunts of glossy-coated yaks and the low dong of their neck bells hung in the air as I basked in the short-lived hot sun and became a cloud watcher. Snow and cloud from the tip of Manaslu merged together, lifted by a perpetual great wind and drifted off into the blue, blue sky, twisting and turning like a slow motion whirlwind. The sun made rainbows in it that shifted and shone.

It was cold enough that night to pay for the privilege of hot water in my Nalgene bottle which I took lovingly to my sleeping bag. The next day there was ice on the insides of the window.

We were meant to stop for 48 hours at Samdo (3696m) for me to acclimatise. Sarki kept a perpetually watchful eagle eye on me and announced we could go on the next day - we needed to if we were going to get over Larkye Pass: the rumour was that all was peaceful up there now, but being so late in the season it could turn at any time.

"It took a super-human effort to walk uphill with feet that seemed to be wearing diver's boots and lungs that had shrunk to the size of peas"

So on the 8th day we arrived at the coldest restaurant at the end of the universe - Dharmashala at 4470m. Here white glaciers ate up the valley leaving only a wide motorway of brown. Walls of ice impregnated with scrapings of the valley floor skirted the white mountains. The sky here was deep sea blue, embroidered with threads of waving prayer flags.

This was a fleeting camp about to retreat to a warmer place (The rice was about to run out according to Sarki). The expectant mass of 70 Pass Plodders from all over the world looked at the stone rooms with their dirt floors and crude wooden beds; they looked at the icicles that hung like tentacles from the roofs; they looked at the frozen excrement in the windowless hut; they tasted the salt laden Dal Bhat… and we all hoped that the sun wouldn't set that afternoon or, if it did, we prayed the morning would come quickly.

Alpine start. 4am and the Buddhist monk has been paid well as the air was dead still as we emerged into the freezing dark. I'd imagined a long caterpillar of trekkers puffing and panting through the Larkye Pass but as dawn touched the surrounding 7000m and 8000m peaks with its rosy glow I looked back and we were alone. The silence was overwhelming.

Samado Mani wall, 151 kb
Samado Mani wall
© Sarah Flint

It took a super-human effort to walk uphill with feet that seemed to be wearing diver's boots and lungs that had shrunk to the size of peas, and the last few steps to the top of the pass at 5106m were the hardest, heaviest and most arduous steps imaginable. But miraculously no headache; no nausea.

We had a quick celebratory chocolate stop under the string of prayer flags that seemed to be magically strung between the mountains… and then came the difficult bit: a very steep descent on a rapidly melting ice and snow scree path - all the way down to Bimtang at 3720m. The views were unearthly: The Annapurna Mountains hunkered down like huge white walls under a cobalt blue sky; at their feet seven glaciers flowed together to form a huge white ocean.

We finished the expected nine hour day in just six and a half, so in celebration I took an anti-inflammatory and drank two flasks of hot tea before washing a pair of pants in the local icy river. Then I sat in the sunshine in the courtyard of the guest house and watched an old man spinning his personal prayer wheel while he stared back at me with equal intrigue. That night my blood cells lapped up oxygen like thirsty dogs.

By the end of the next and final day I had the first blister of the trek: we walked downhill for eight hours to Dharapani (1860m), where the Annapurna and Manaslu circuits merge. The scenery changed from brown to green; from rock to field; from ice to dust. By lunchtime deep gorges hid the mountains from view until there was only one distant peak to wonder at. The town was packed with trekkers and the twenty first century declared itself with motorbikes and jeeps.

Who needs the twenty first century? But then I realised that at heart I'm a Western European and that in the end I did. I'd been happy to deprive myself for 10 days - how else could I have seen a medieval land of non-mechanised agriculture so remote and inaccessible it takes days to walk there? I saw grubby but happy children in Tibetan robes with amulets around their necks to keep them safe; monkeys stealing millet from fields; yaks and fluffy baby yaks; a man canter a horse over the longest suspension footbridge; seen a granny carried in a basket on the back of a relative; the Himalayan mountains moonlit; heard the continuous roar of the glacial rivers and seen beautiful and robust families go about their simple yet hard lives as they have for centuries.

The Manaslu circuit is part of a carefully managed conservation area and numbers allowed into the area are limited. It's compulsory to have a guide on this trek and they're there to ensure the footprint the multitude of trekkers leave is minimal (as well as looking after our every need). The Manaslu conservation policy is ambitious and I'm sure succeeds on some levels but it's clear we are leaving more than our footprints and I've come away feeling slightly guilty in my complicity.

It's nowhere near the motorway of the Annapurna circuit but I could see the negative impact of tourism. This landscape and its people have lived in harmony for years. Micro-hydro plants and small portable solar panels have eased the hardness of their lives, as well as trainers and fake North Face down jackets. Trekkers bring much needed money into the area - but it's nearly all spent in the guest houses. These provide western food for the trekkers, which comes to them on the mule trains and is mostly packaged in plastic wrapping. This is a country that can't even re-cycle its batteries so to expect the local village to have the infrastructure (or desire) to get rid of the rubbish responsibly is asking a lot. In addition, the guest houses often use wood to cook on and I could see the scarring of landslides resulting from deforestation.

But it's that old chesnut of a condundrum – without the money the trekkers bring to the area and the conservation project, the problems could be far worse… and the twenty first century is only eight days away.

The trek is best done in October to mid November. Permits, licences and my superb guide were arranged through Himalayan Quests.

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