Manaslu Trek – Part One of the Trilogy
The plan for the three of us good friends, Rachel, Laura, and myself, was to head out to Nepal for the first two weeks of April, dates that coincided with Hong Kong’s generous Easter bank holidays so that Rachel and Laura could take a good amount of time off from work. We met at least five years ago in Hong Kong and had gone together on a whim to trek Kota Kinabalu in Borneo almost four years prior in 2019. Having had such a remarkably good time, we planned another trek the following year to Nepal. However, covid hit and so we had to wait until Hong Kong eased its tight restrictions and opened up to the rest of Asia and the world.
So, four years later, when at last we could enjoy quarantine-free travel, I asked the advice of one of the Nepalese guides I had met a few months earlier about which trek we should do. He strongly urged that we do Manaslu trek as Annapurna has become overcrowded and touristy, especially with the influx of travelers post covid who had been waiting for years to put their boots on the ground (aka just like us). We were looking for something more authentic and difficult than just a walk in the park, and now looking back on it, we certainly got more than what we bargained for.
The trek follows an ancient salt-trading route which supplied salt to the region and is not only known for its turns in foul weather, but also famous for dangerous landslides which causes changes in trails. Through it all, we encountered bands of roaming goats, mammoth glaciers, mini avalanches, subzero temperatures, wizened monks, falling into waist deep snow, and more, but most importantly, we were fortunate enough to experience the generous hospitality of the peoples of the Gorkha district, deepen the bonds of our friendship with each other, and share laughs with our exceptional guides and porters who were with us every step of the way, and without whom this trip would never have been possible.
Below are the entries from my journal that I kept throughout the trek, along with side commentary and explanations. The edits I’ve made are for readability, spelling corrections (I categorically cannot spell), grammar, and I’ve removed some inner monologues that would make even the most patient person roll their eyes. The journal entries are italicized and in bold while the commentary or background information is not.
Day One – Arrival to the Capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, Before Heading out to the Mountains by Jeep
Our trip began with a 10pm flight from Hong Kong’s tidy airport to the bureaucratic chaos that defines Kathmandu’s airport late in the evening. After some arguments on which currency the visa-on-arrival counter worker would accept and helping out a stranger fellow tourist with some cash since the ATM was broken, we finally left the airport where we were picked up by our Nepalese guide, Paban. Lucky Paban, who had had the pleasure of being my guide during EBC (Everest Base Camp trek) just four months prior, was a tall man from a nearby district with sarcastic wit who had handled my endless fears and eccentricities deftly in those two weeks we had spent together in the harsh Himalayan climate.
We arrived in our hotel late in the night of the 1st of April, where we were handed large duffle bags which each contained a down sleeping bag, heavy-duty jacket for subzero temperatures, and a map of our upcoming trek, all of which are included in our trekking fee. The porters would be carrying the duffel bags, two bags for each porter, and we would each carry our own day bag on top of that.
In the morning we put on some warm weather gear in preparation for our long and hot car ride ahead and headed downstairs to meet Ganga, the trusty administrator of Nepal Hiking team to complete payments, ask any questions, get a rundown of our upcoming adventure, and return our room keys. Our jeep came up to the hotel as our duffel bags got tied down to the top and we meet the fourth trekker of our trip, Chrissy, along with our porters and assistant guide. Chrissy rocked up with an adventurer’s attitude, large acrylic nails, caterpillar extension eyelashes and was brave enough to join our motley crew at the last minute while in between jobs in the UK.
Laden down with our things, the nine of us (four trekkers, two guides, two porters, and the driver) piled into the jeep made for eight and we winded our way through the hectic roads of Kathmandu until we were out of the city and onto the dusty, partly unpaved roads that acted as the often choked veins and arteries that fed the capital. For hours we rode until we get to bumpier roads and started to pass by small villages which were surrounded by banana trees and other crops. There was minimal traffic out here except for the couple of times we were road blocked by stubborn sheep and goats who decided that a dirt road was a good place to make camp until the shepherds could come and herd them away.
April 2nd 2023, Dahding Besi
Successful flight from Hong Kong airport to Kathmandu last night with just minimal hassle. My personal hell would be to be forever looped in that KTM [abbreviation for Kathmandu airport] 9th circle of hell bullshit for eternity. This time I was prepared with extra cash and armed with patience. I think I adequately prepped Rachel and Laura for the administrative blockage and ineptitude that defines Nepalese governance.
Paban picked us up and I gave out a big squeal, hug, and ruffled his red-hued henna hair to the scandal of the conservative men around us but God it was good to see him.
Today, right now, we’re stopped in a relatively large town for lunch. Paban said that after today, meat options deteriorate rapidly so I am thankful that I am heavily armed with cat food [euphemism for some deviled ham] this time [as compared to EBC – Everest Base Camp]. Today will be all car ride until we arrived in Machha Khola where we’ll be able to stretch our legs a bit before we start our 22km trek tomorrow.
Paban said Manaslu is medium difficulty while EBC was hard, Annapurna would be considered easy. We don’t break 4.5km [altitude] until day 9 of the trek so hoping that we’ll be well acclimated by then – I’ll need to stretch everyday to keep my knees in check.
Our scenic yet bumpy ride soon came to a stop as a light drizzle started up – the road was impassable in front of us because a tractor’s power died in a rut and wouldn’t start up again, presumably due to a bad battery. It seemed that the whole village and neighboring villages had come out to see the drama so I headed down from our jeep to join the fun and watch as a second tractor came to pull out the first one. We join in the cheering as a third tractor joined the fight and, after much debate amongst the men of the area, finally hooked into the first and second tractor, and successfully pulled the original tractor out of the mud.
However, the rain continued, and the multiple tractors had made the passing tough even for our off-roading jeep. Our driver decided it was not a risk he wanted to take, so our gear was unloaded, and we prepared ourselves for the couple of hours hike in front of us to reach our destination for the evening.
I was having trouble with my new shoes and my calves instantly seized up which caused me to fall far behind as I try to warm them up. A bit of panic began to set in because I had broken the cardinal rule of new gear – test your gear BEFORE starting your adventure. I worried that I wouldn’t make it as I hobbled in pain- Paban found a second walking stick to go with my first to take some weight my legs.
That evening we made it into a small village down the road where we tucked into our rooms for the evening. I climbed a nearby rock in the dark to get enough service in order to call my friend and previous fitness trainer if he had any suggestion on how to properly take care of my calves so they don’t impede or ruin the trip. He asked some questions to get a better idea of what I’m suffering from then gave me a good list of exercise and stretches to offset the pain. I prayed that with his help I can mitigate some of my poor planning.
That evening, over potatoes and rice (to be a common staple of our meals), the three of us chatted and got to know each other better to the sound of rain drops and kids playing outside.
Day 2 – Trekking from Machha Khola to Jagat through Nepalese Jungle
April 3rd, 2023 – a village on the way to Jagat during midmorning tea
Today’s the long day of 22km through winding Nepalese ‘jungle’ with banana trees and plentiful goats. Maybe one day I’ll come back for some of these small-statured Nepalese goats because they are the perfect size for the farm I envision having one day.
With Nepal Hiking Team, there are two groups of four with two guides and two porters for each group. The other group seems like a fun bunch, the same age as mom and dad, and all from the UK so I’m the odd one out as the token American.
After a call with Kush [the best fitness trainer of HK], last night, I’m hopeful that my calf issue will be resolved with copious amounts of stretching and warm up/cool-down.
[Later on, in Jagat]
We arrived in Jagat, which is a shockingly beautiful town with clean streets and new buildings with a rough guess population of around 300. Goats abound and the fourth member of our group, Chrissy, gasped in horror as one was being butchered in a main square in front of our quaint lodge, the “Mongolian Cottage”.
In Jagat, I enjoy a nice Somersby and had my first taste of ‘raksi’ or rice wine that is homemade from one of the guides. It tasted as one would expect of home-made rice wine, but it got the job done and filled my insides with warmth. I figured at only 2,000m (7,000ft) I could let loose a little before the altitude really set in.
After dinner we played our first round of Uno for the trip as we watched some of the bad weather roll in from inside the window-pained dining hall and big wet raindrops began to fall.
Day 3 – Trekking from Jagat to Deng Where We Start Entering Tibetan Villages
The morning of April 4th, I woke up early to try to make a call for work, and failing that, I got to enjoy watching the sunrise come through the gorge we were nestled in – enjoying the visage of soft pink and baby blue hues making their way over the mountains and gradually lighting up the turquoise river below. Thankfully the bad weather from the night before had passed and it was promising to be a beautiful day.
April 4th 2023 – Bhangsing, on the way to Deng
Today is 20km with a 700m altitude climb net. I woke up Chrissy and myself with a loud alarm at 5:30am to [make a work call] but being in the gorge blocked all service and the Wi-Fi was turned off for the night (days usually start at 6am [or I found out, often even earlier] in the villages/lodges to start cooking for porters, guides, and trekkers alike). I enjoyed the beautiful sunrise over the mountain pass and the river that ran through the gorge, watching a train of donkeys laden with packs start their day down below.
Today’s hike started on a road in the process of being built, where some large boulders fell mid construction zone and the construction crew used dynamite to bomb it into pieces then clear it – it was a medium size boom followed by a cracking echo through the valleys. Trekkers and workers waited on both sides while a man in a yellow hat ran from the dynamite pre-explosion. Two blasts and we were through to the other side.
After the road, we found ourselves back on the rolling stony path/trail through small villages where dirt smudged kids came running out asking for chocolate after uttering a hastily cheeky namaste.
My ankle is giving me a bit of trouble – my outer calf area was punishing me for a bit before loosening its tight grip and I’m hoping this won’t be a daily tribulation because it slows me down substantially. Was fine by midday and feeling sprightly after a can of deviled ham, affectionately called ‘cat food’ to the smelly delight of all the other trekkers.
Often when we’d pass through villages in this region, little kids would come running out to us with upturned hopeful faces putting their hands together up near their heart and saying namaste. The bravest one, or youngest, would then start asking for chocolate and sometimes they would eagerly hold out their hands. We once had a few kids put bamboo sticks up on the road and try to demand a toll – chocolate in exchange for passage – before their mother came out and harshly berated them for the inhospitality, but I couldn’t help but think that the ringleader of that group was going to go far.
April 4th was also the last day of truly warm weather for us, something that we longed for in the days coming up and didn’t get to experience again until on the last day of our return to Kathmandu. The turn in weather in the evening gradually crept up on us until the sun started to set, mixing rain and sweat to create the wonderful combination of misery and cold.
Day 4 – The hike to Gorkha District’s own Rivendell; Namrung
April 5th, 2023 – Bur on the way to Namrung
Yesterday afternoon, we got caught up in the rain and it was a cold and disheartening trek to Deng after that. We made it stumbling and drenched to the main lodge of the four-building village looking like a group of wet rats shivering in the cold. We swarmed the warm fire to the grumblings of the lodge owners who were preparing to feed a full house.
Our plan this morning was to hit the trail early to avoid the afternoon rains that the weather report threatened. I’ve not really had to deal with soaking rain on a trek before and I now have a newfound determination to keep as much of our things dry as possible. Tonight should get to -1C so I’m hoping that here on out will be snow which I assume will be less drenching but maybe it comes with its own can of unknown [to me] worms.
Last night we got a bit wild late into the night (8:30pm) playing uno with the guides and porters. We were hooting and hollering having a grand ol’ time. The much younger porters and assistant guide were a bit shy at first, but we managed to pull them out of their shells a bit since we were all on this trek together and they seemed like a raucously fun group.*
Paban made me laugh quite a bit as we started a steep ascent this morning – he was making the sounds that the donkey herders make since we were (mostly me) making languorous process up the steep switchback. Makes me think of how we must seem like pack animals to our guides, just like the trains of donkeys that pass us by multiple times a day. The guides lead us, one in front, one behind, water us, feed us, house us. We are in many ways dependent on them, and they can’t but think that we’re a bit slow paced and slow witted as we don’t know the mountains nor trekking to the same degree that they do. We’re also all outfitted in this primo gear while the guides and porters are wearing knockoffs and carrying the bare minimum of personal gear while still outperforming us in both fitness and technical ability.
Thankfully on the 5th, we were able to beat the bad weather on the way to Namrung, a town which ended up being my favorite in the entire trek. Earlier in the day, the paved stone under Laura’s feet gave way and she took a tumble down into the bushes on the side of the trail. A large enough portion of our trek had already taken us through steep winding paths that induced my vertigo easily, so it shook us up quite a bit when we saw her fall. The bushes seemed to cushion her, but we were all fawning about her to make sure she was okay to her most probable chagrin – in some ways it was a close call that the stone gave way there instead of nearly anywhere else on the trail. It was a good reminder to us all to be wary of our steps.
After getting settled, we walked into Namrung where cows masticated happily in courtyards and the streets of the village were lined with smooth stone. The views were astounding at 2,600m (8,700ft), with white topped mountains, light blue glacial streams, and we started to see more yaks. We were entering Tibetan communities from here on out until the end of the trek, and the people here decorated their homes with brilliant hues of primary colors and wore clothes that look as if they haven’t changed in hundreds of years. Namrung was remarkably clean compared to any village I’ve been in and new buildings were being erected all around with sturdy material, showing just how much of an influx of money was coming in and how it was being reinvested into the community.
View from one of our tea stops
*I’ve edited out some of the fun we all had together since I am not sure what the rules are with their company in terms of drinking, card playing, interacting etc and it would break my heart if I got anyone in trouble. Let’s just say this is a shoutout to them for everything, thank you guys <3
Day 5 – Leaving Namrung to head to Lho Gaun, Heading Deeper into the Himalayas with Views of Glaciers on the Way to
Morder Larke Pass
April 6th, 2023 – Lho 3,200m (10,500ft)
Today was an easy day compared to the last three. Steep climbing into the mountain ranges, their snow ladened peaks reflecting the clear strong sun, the wind picking up its hostile volatility as the visibility deepens in the high altitude/low viscosity air. It’s starting to become chillingly beautiful with tonight projected to reach -7C so after being on our cold and lonesome last night, Rachel and I have agreed to room together from now on for extra warmth and for morale since sleep will quickly start to deteriorate. The sleeping bags we have this trek seem of better quality than EBC, as well as the lodges – or maybe the sleeping bags are the same quality, I just know how to use it this time – strip down to bare skin and completely cocoon so your body heat can regulate the temp. Do this and you won’t wake up covered in sweat and going to the restroom isn’t the hell it once was since your own body heat takes a bit to dissipate if you wrap up as soon as you exit the cocoon in a fleece.
Last night, in Namrung, we had Rivendell-esque village vibes with Tibetan charm where I picked up a bracelet for [my niece] and [my sister] made by a cheery Tibetan woman who proudly showed us how she weaved hearts into many of the designs.
I decided to rest in the village of Lho, as it was one of the most comfortable lodges I had ever been in, with large glass windows that made it feel like we were specimens in a very warm greenhouse. We could strip down to base layers without the furnace even being lit and still be comfortable during the day and there was room to spread out, instruments to pluck at, and even internet connection to catch up with the outside world (for better or for worse). Manaslu peak rose above us, fierce and covered in snow and it glowed golden in the sunrise. Even in this terrain, the village maintained fields of green sprouting crops that coloured the landscape and we each had our own mini cottage where we could wash and hang clothes.
I was lucky enough to see one of the area’s horse ceremonies, where the women and children came out to cheer on their fathers, brothers, and sons as they rode heavily decorated horses from village to village to show off their horsemanship. Horse after horse cantered through and circled the giant stupa that centered the village before heading off up the slope to the next village. First were the older men, then the horsemen become younger and younger until young children were urging their own ponies onwards. The group was followed by a procession of people of all ages on foot who were singing and enjoying the holiday.