Tsum Valley Trek Diary – An untouched sacred trek of Nepal
The trek to Tsum Valley lasted from April 26 through May 13, 2021. When the journey concluded in Machha Khola, Gaon. The journey encounters a region only recently opened to foreigners; therefore, visitors are still a novelty to the region’s people. This Tsum Valley Trek diary records the daily adventures and experiences of the author as he encountered the people of this incredible region.
Monday, April 26 (Kathmandu to Soti Khola – First day in Tsum Valley Trek)
Sotikhola Khola, Nepal – A journey begins with a single step, but on this trek to Tsum Valley, it started with two car rides to reach our starting point. The journey began early in the morning in Kathmandu when my guide Pheri arrived at my hotel room in Thamel.
The morning opens with the bright sun rising over the Kathmandu valley’s mountains. I was up and ready when Pheri knocked on my door at 5:45 am. It was time to depart.
The trip was a mission to explore a new open region for trekkers – the Tsum Valley Trek. In terms of distance, it is not that far away from Kathmandu. But in terms of culture, it might as well be another planet. Tsum Valley Trek only leaves what is traditionally Nepali and enters into an ancient civilization that is probably not even found today in Tibet. The people, the culture, the language, and the religions are Tibetan Buddhism. But even with those links, it has developed its own distinct culture.
Here no one eats any meat. The wild animals have no fear of man as they are not hunted. The Tibetan language has taken its dialect in this remote valley. The high snow-capped mountains that ring the valley have separated it from the rest of the world for centuries.
The Lamas have also done their share to keep it separated. They have convinced the monarchy to keep Tsum Valley in limits to all foreigners to preserve their culture. It was not until the end of the monarchy in 2008 and the rise of the Nepal Republic that the region became open to foreigners that year.
The push to open the valley came above through local efforts. The people knew that they needed to interact with the outside world. Their children were already being sent to school in Kathmandu, and some modern world things were returning home. You can slow change, but you cannot stop it.
But what would I find? Very little has been written about the place which borders north of the Ganesh Himal mountains. A trekking map has been published, but beyond that, nothing more. My work would produce the first guidebook to the region.
Pradip Karki, my sponsor and owner of Peregrine Treks and Expedition would accompany us partway as we wanted to visit his family in his home village of Dhading. We would also be joined by Ram, who would soon become my chief guide when Phery would leave back for Kathmandu. Afterward, we go early to avoid the traffic jam on the road out of Kathmandu. Furthermore, we had a Toyota 4×4, which we would need once we got onto the dusty mountain road towards Arughat Bazar.
Traffic is always heavy going in and out of Kathmandu. The road is only two lanes, and there are usually several old trucks broken down on the street, creating all kinds of slow down. The earlier one can leave, the faster the crossing. We left early enough to avoid the usual problems associated with travel in and out of the valley.
Our first goal was the district city of Dhading Beshi. The largest city in Dhading District, which takes in the entire Ganesh Himal region. While we would be trekking in the Gorkha district, one man here would play a significant role in the return part of the journey. Silas Tamang is the executive secretary of HIMS Nepal. Silas is the founder of this Christian NGO., which is working to improve the lives of the people of the Ganesh Himal region. Born and raised in the place, he has dedicated his life to working to increase the people he grew up with.
Pradip had never met him, and I wanted two to complete. Shilas and I have begun working together, and over the following weeks, he would be a lifesaver for me. I would get sick when I came back through the Ganesh Himal Region, and he gave me much help.
We take the main road until the junction where we turn north on a paved road to Dhading Beshi. Once we leave Dhading Beshi, we will leave much of civilization behind. The road turns to dust beyond the city as we head towards Arughat Bazar.
In Nepal, there are two primary seasons: dust and mud. The monsoon rains begin in June, run through mid-September, and everything turns to dirt. Once the rains cease, the clay soil turns to powder, creating cold behind every vehicle, coating all that it can. Even walking raises small dust clouds which cover your feet and legs in a brownish powder. It penetrates your trekking shoes and shocks.
We encountered several marriage celebrations along the way from Dhading to Arughat. In the local culture, there is a brass instrument used for music. It is a cross between a trump and a sousaphone with no valves but a homemade mouthpiece of brass. Moreover, it can play only your notes, but the musician can make it sing.
I wanted to try playing one. Pradip and Phery told me I couldn’t blow a note as it is challenging. I finally got my chance and could play a couple of notes on it. I played trumps in high school. So, I had an idea of how to blow into the mouthpiece.
The owner of the instrument played some songs for us. Then pulled out a smaller device, like a clarinet, but one would be used for charming snakes in India. It featured a homemade double reed system created with an unusual sound.
We had an audience gathering around us, so the musician indicated that we ought to pay some money at an appropriate time. I pull out Rs. 10, and he pulls out Rs. 100. I feign shock, and he continues to play in hopes of getting more money. He plays but doesn’t get any more. We traveled up and down the region’s foothills on the road in our Toyota until we finally came to Arughat Bazar.
Arughat Bazar straddles both sides of the Budhi Gandaki Nadi, the main river flowing southward from Tsum Valley. Here it is a good size river moving with little speed southward. The streets are all dust, but there is a significant business district. It will be the last major city of any size we see until I return to Dhading Beshi.
We leave our Toyota and drive here; then, we will take local transportation to our destination Soti Khola. Afterward, we also passed our first check-point for trekking. We check-in in and then pick up a local vehicle.
The road becomes narrower and rougher. I can see why our first driver didn’t want to go any further. It is an excellent road to wreck a vehicle on. The rocks and holes alone will destroy much of a car.
The road ends at Soti Khola, a village on the Budhi Gandaki Nadi. The Soti river (Khola) joins the Budhi Gandaki here, and the Soti river ends. Soti River ends the vehicle traffic. The only bridge across the river is a suspension bridge for foot and donkey traffic.
The donkey trains the service the upper region ends here. The goods they bring are unloaded and wait for a truck that will take them to Kathmandu. They will reload with supplies for the mountains. For the return trip, things like tobacco, whisky, coca-cola, rice, and some other collections will be loaded on the donkeys.
Donkeys have been used for a hundred years to carry goods in and out of the mountains. They are the trucks of the hills. Several owners will go together on trains of more than 40 pack animals loaded with an average of 65 kgs of goods per animal.
The owners are also the bankers of the mountains. They carry the money down to the market, make the purchases and bring goods back. There is a lot of cash that goes with these caravans along with interests. Everything is recorded to ensure honesty, and they carry a Khukuri knife for protection.
We stayed at a guest house across the Soti River in Soti Khola for the night. Tomorrow I will start walking.
Tuesday, April 27 — The second day of Tsum Valley Trek Diary
Hotel Laligurans, Lubumbashi Nepal — The sun rose on the village of Soti Khola as the 3 of us began our trek. We left Pradip with his sister yesterday as he was taking some time to visit family. We would start our move northward on the main trail.
There are straightforward ways. We encounter only occasional motorcycle traffic, which is the only motorized vehicle that can cross the narrow suspension bridge at the Soti Khola. We are walking.
The terrain is up and down, with plenty of Nepali dust. The elevation here is much lower than in Kathmandu, and the temperature is higher. It will reach around 33 degrees Celsius. Pheri is complaining about the heat as it’s too hot for him. He’s a Sherpa from the Mount Everest Region, which is much more relaxed. I walk in Bangladesh, so this is very pleasant compared to the heat that I had experienced just a week before.
I am an extremely slow walker. What takes a local person one hour to do, I take two. While I had warned Pheri about my slowness: he was alarmed at my slowness.
Some of my slowness comes from having surgery on one knee last year. At 56 years of age, Arthritis has taken hold of some of the joints, creating much pain in the early morning. It takes me about an hour before the endorphins take over and the pain ceases to be noticed. I am also not here to set any marathon records. I am here to write a guidebook, and I enjoy moving at a slower pace so I can take in more of what I am seeing.
Of course, starting a day off with an attack of diarrhea does not help the situation. I am easily prone to search for things. I learned that we did not bring water purification on the trip yesterday. We would have to rely on boiled water when we can get it.
There are many small Nepali farms we pass along the way. The route is dotted with small farms and villages where people have carved out space on the mountainside. The road we were on becomes a trail, and the trail features stone steps in places to help us go up and down with a little more ease.
The steps have been developed by the local village development committee. They were mostly developed for the mules that walk these trails. They leave their markings along the way, especially on the stone steps.
The steps are not evenly matched. One step might be three and the other 15 inches. The purchase area of the step may be barely toe-hold, usually big enough for a donkey’s hoof. For me, going up is easier than going down as I know cautiously over the steps. I don’t want to slip and fall and break a leg. Also, falling can be quite fatal as one side is usually a drop-off. Old big guys make big splashes in reverse when we fall. I wished not to make a demonstration.
We arrived around 1:30 in the village of Lapu Beshi. It is typical of most villages that we will encounter along this trail. It is built along the trail, surrounded by terraced fields which have been carved into the mountain. The village hangs on the side of the mountain, and no side roads are leading to additional houses.
The village has three guesthouses, but there are no other types of business. Everything is compact, based on the shortage of buildable land.
We stop for lunch at the hotel Laligurans in Lapu Beshi, and Pheri decides it’s where we will spend the night. Our goal has been Machha Khola Gaon, but he decides on this place instead. I don’t object; it’s the first day of trekking, and I don’t want to overdo it.
The hotel has individual rooms, although all consist of simply a bed. They do have a place to take a bath, so I wash off several layers of dust. The restaurant is on the riverside, offering a great view of the Budhi Gandaki River.
The rains move in with a nice thunderstorm, but it passes. As I would learn, we would often have an afternoon storm while in this valley. The moisture can not rise high enough to clean the mountain. So, it lets loose in the form of rain. This keeps this valley well water.
The menu is limited to Dal Bhat and spaghetti. I ordered spaghetti, which is pretty good. They make their strange-looking sauce which is more of a paste. I grab a bottle of ketchup and mix it with the sauce, which now tastes more like spaghetti sauce. Furthermore, I have learned in the mountains you have to be creative in your approach to food.
I met a Nepali photographer at the hotel who works in Dubai and just returned from Tsum Valley Trek. He had hit it right for the weather as the skies were crystal clear every morning. He had gone to the big festival there and showed me some really beautiful pictures he had taken while on the trip.
I am encouraged by his comments and pictures on the trip to the Tsum Valley. The wind is growing strong tonight. Keeping the temperature comfortable. We are 880 meters above sea level, which is lower than Kathmandu.
Wednesday, April 28 — The third day of Tsum Valley Trek
Guest House, Tatopani, Nepal – We have trekked today to the village of Tatopani. The name “Tatopani” means hot water in Nepal. I had been looking forward to stopping here and soaking some sore muscles, But what a disappointment this village is. The pool to soak in has been filled with firewood.
The village is small and rather quaint in its own way. It has only one guest house, which is very poor. It consists of a single room with rickety beds that feel like they will collapse at any moment.
The menu is equally poor, with the choice being dal/baht or noodle soup. The village has no electricity, which is unusual along this trail. Most of the villages have limited power supplied by local hydro systems that will serve a few villages with a few hours of power each night. This place has not quite joined the 20th century.
The street through the town is paved with large flat stones. At the south end of the village is the hot springs. Two stone spigots constantly release hot water onto a stone area where people bathe and wash dishes.
We strip down to our undershorts and take a bath. It’s really more of a sponge bath. One of the spigots is hotter than the other, almost too hot to allow it to run over your body.
The day started out bright and sunny as we left early and moved north. We walk up and down the trail, the elevation rising as we work our way upstream. The trail is fairly easy.
We arrive at lunchtime in Machha Khola Gaon, which is a larger village on the trail. It is built into the steep mountainside. There are several trails in the village, which lead to different parts. On the north side is the Machha Khola (river) which comes down in a beautiful waterfall before breaking into several smaller streams that tumble to the Budhi Gandaki Nadi. The river has a number of grist mills operating. However, like in Tatopani, there is no electricity. I am not sure why they have not harnessed the river with a small local hydro plant.
We stopped at the Hotel Tsum Valley Lodge and Restaurant, which has two floors of rooms, plus a restaurant that serves up some excellent food. I ordered yak cheese momo, which was wonderful.
This place had been our goal for yesterday, but we fell short due to my slow speed. However, we could have. Made it here last night.
This will be my stop when I return from Tsum Valley Trek as the bridge over the river leads to the Ganesh Himal region. I will leave my guide here and take a local guide into that region. I look across the river at the formable mountain which we will need to climb in order to reach the pass. It looks like it will not be an easy climb.
We finish our lunch, and then it’s back on the trail. On a clear day, you can see the mountains of the Ganesh Himal, but the skies were not so cooperative today.
We trek north to the picturesque village of Khola Besi. It is a beautiful little village that has embraced tourism. There are two guest houses here. The first one grows its own coffee beans, which they advertise as serving locally grown coffee. I insisted we stop so I could sample the coffee. It was unfortunately weak, but I got to see the coffee beans on the trees.
We continue on, pushing to Tatopani. As I wrote above, the town was such a disappointment. I thought about how we could have stayed at some nice guest houses in Khola Besi and eaten some decent food. Here, the situation was disappointing. The village has yet to embrace tourism, most likely the last holdout on the trail. We encounter a little rain here in Tatopani as we settle in for the night.
Thursday, APRIL 29
BUDHIGANDAKI GUEST HOUSE, SALIERI, NEPAL – Today has been a miserable, rainy day on the trek. The rains came early. And we trekked through the rains as we are on a time schedule.
Tsum Valley Trek requires a special permit to enter, and the dates allowed are noted on your permit. We have much to accomplish, and a short time to do it in.
Fortunately, I have a raincoat which I put on. It tends to be a bit warm, as the material is designed to protect you from rain and is not porous by any means.
We leave Tatopani behind. It had rained most of the night and the rains let up temporarily. Just north of the village is a suspension bridge where we now cross to the east side of the Budhi Gandaki Nadi. We will follow the east side for much of the way until we come to another suspension bridge to take us to the west side again.
The trail is rising. Tatopani’s elevation is 990 meters; Salieri’s elevation is 1360 meters definitely climbing.
We pass through the villages of Dobhan with its own suspension bridge over the Dobhan River that lends a pretty view of the town. Beyond this are a number of very small settlements, often consisting of no more than a single house. We stopped in one village to eat, but the goats and sheep had defecated all over the floor of the restaurant and no one was bothering to clean it up. The flies were buzzing with excitement, having a smorgasbord of visitor’s food and sheep manure. I refused to eat there on account of the sanitation.
I can handle a lot, but this place was ridiculous. They didn’t care about the health of their visitors, so why patronize the place?
We went about a half hour further down the trail and ate at another place. It was here that Pheri and I discussed the need of having both a guide and porter on this trek. The discussion would eventually lead to his leaving the next morning so he could get back to Kathmandu.
The weather had been sunny in the morning but quickly started to turn against us. We arrived at the fishing village of Yuru Khola, which is built on the rocks next to the Budhi Gandaki Nadi. It consists of several makeshift buildings along the lower trail. The upper trail skirts the village, which is necessary during monsoon season when the lower trail is underwater.
The lower trail is not as easy as at the end, there is a wooden ladder to climb in order to reach the upper trail that will now travel next to the river. It’s a makeshift ladder with rungs unevenly spaced and far apart. I don’t much like climbing ladders, much less with a pack on my back, but 1 made it up the ladder.
The weather is spitting rain at us as we cross the river again and this time we come to a stone trail that will lead to the village of Jagat. The trail here has been paved with large flat stones, making for easy walking.
Jagat is a major village, and where we have to check in at the checkpoint. Both the Tsum Valley Trek and the Manaslu region are restricted conservation areas with a limited number of visitors allowed in order to maintain the environment and culture. The village is made of stone and has several Buddhist Chorten. This village offers several guest houses, but we choose to continue on.
Jagat is just south of the Bhatu Khola which forms waterfalls and rapids on its way to the Budhi Gandaki Nadi. We cross the river and follow a local path, which takes me through parts of the river that I have to wade through. The water is cold, glacier-fed. While temperatures have been pleasant, my cold wet shoes send a shiver through me.
We stopped at the only guest house in Salleri, just north of Jagat, for the night. Pheri and I discuss his leaving the next day. Ram, the porter who is also a guide for Peregrine Treks and Tours will stay on as we will explore the Tsum Valley together. Pheri has been to Tsum Valley Trek several times and will return to Kathmandu. He is complaining about his own physical pain, which may be the result of the trek he just returned from.
The rain continues into the night. There are individual rooms, but very little in the form of privacy. There is no way of locking the door from the inside, so I lean my backpack against the door for some limited security. Outside the entrance to the second floor, a bat finds plenty of insects to eat while circling the light. There is no door to keep the bat out, but it chooses to stay outside by its food source.
Friday, April 30
TSUM HOTEL GUEST HOUSE, LOKPA, NEPAL – Pheri left for Kathmandu early as the rain slowed down. It had rained all night in Chum Valley (not to be confused with Tsum Valley). It would be faster and easier for us to move as two people rather than with three. The days to come would prove that true.
Pheri’s departure also opened the way for Ram and me to get better acquainted. As a porter, he was the low man on the totem pole, but now it was the two of us. We would have a chance to talk at length. Ram turned out to be an ideal guide who exhibited great patience with my slowness. There is no joy in arthritis.
It was a while before we realized we had a problem – Pheri had left with all of our money for the trip! I had around Rs 7000 on me, which would not be enough to complete the Tsum Valley Trek. But neither of us wanted to turn back. We decided to continue to Philim where we could get a phone to call Pradip and ask for help.
There are no banks up here. The last place to even have funds wired is Machhakholagaon, but how they would be able to pay is beyond me. The economy here consists of hard currency and barter. Beyond that, there is nothing else.
The rain slowed down to a light mist by the time we left Salleri. We walked north on the trail, past the ghost town of Paimo. No one lives there anymore, a victim of a major rock slide that wiped out the town.
The rock slides occur during the monsoon season when the ground has become so saturated that the rocks simply let go. Once they start to roll, they take out almost everything in their path. Entire villages can be wiped out, with a great loss of life as well as livestock. An entire village can be destroyed in a matter of seconds. It reminds you of the frailty of life here in the Himalayas. The people who live here are survivors, who carve out an existence in the midst of great adversity.
The trail rises abruptly as we pass over the Mani walls, so named for the Buddhist mantra carved on them. We come down and dip around Sirdibas where there are a number of small streams upon which several grist mills operate.
Just beyond Sirdibas is a long suspension bridge that we crossed the Budhi Gandaki for the last time. Had we continued north on the trail, we would come to Mt. Manaslu. However, our destination is Tsum Valley Trek, so we cross to the east side and up the trail to the town of Philim.
Philim would be the last village of any size we would encounter. It has a school, three hotels, several stores, a telephone, and some really good food. We call Pradip and tell him of our dilemma. He says if we have enough money to make it to Lamagaon, we can see his friend there at the hotel who will lend us money. We have enough to make it if we watch our money closely.
We sit down and enjoy lunch, which consists of vegetable mo-mo mixed with yak cheese and dipped in ketchup. My palate has developed a taste for ketchup. It may be the potassium in it, but it seems to be something I crave. Unfortunately, this would be one of the last places I would see ketchup.
We pass the checkpoint and register. From there we continue on northward. The trail hugs the side of the mountain as it weaves up and down. Small rivers create spectacular waterfalls as they tumble down the sides of the mountains and into the Budhi Gandaki Nadi that continues to get farther and farther below us. Above us eagles rise on thermals, lazily soaring to new heights as they look over the valley for food. The clouds have vanished and the skies are sunny and blue.
There are two small villages along the eastern side of the river. One is Eklebote, and it offers a beautiful view of the river. The other is Chisapani, where cold water flows through community taps for the residents’ use. Neither village is very large, and each has the start of a guest house.
Civilization comes to an end after Eklebote. The houses become non-existent as we move northwards. We see butterflies of various vivid colors flying about, but as for people, we are pretty much alone most of the time.
We reach the place where the Chhilung Khola flows into the Budhi Gandaki Nadi. The Budhi Gandaki Nadi has become a much smaller river, foaming as it runs its course over rocks and boulders. It is here where we see a sign welcoming us to Tsum Valley Trek. We have made it to the entrance.
Actually, we are not really Tsum Valley, as we have to pass through a narrow gorge to reach the lower valley. This is probably the tip of the VDC, and it is here that the trail divides. Go to the left and you will come to the Manaslu Trail, crossing the Budhi Gandaki Nadi on a short steel bridge. Keep to the right and you are on the only route into Tsum Valley Trek.
The trek to Tsum Valley was definitely gaining in elevation. We could look down on the trail to Manaslu as we continued to rise. Our goal was the village of Lokpa, which is 805 meters in elevation above Sirdibas.
The climb was steep. In some places we had steps; other times simply loose rock to transit over. It was already late afternoon and the skies were changing for the worse. It began to rain, and it continued to rain steadily all the way to Lokpa.
What we couldn’t see through the trees and rain was that we would leave the Budhi Gandaki Nadi behind. It draws its waters from the melting glaciers of Manaslu. The first major tributary it encounters is Syar Khola, the main river of Tsum Valley. This river would form a narrow gorge that we would have to pass through in order to reach the lower valley.
The village of Lokpa is beyond the confluence but before the gorge. It consists of a single guest house with a general store and a few houses that surround it. There isn’t much to the town but we really didn’t care. We were tired, cold, and hungry.
We arrived at dusk, and I walked into the kitchen to be near the fire to thaw out. Temperatures had dropped to around 12°C. Our elevation was now at 2240 meters, and we were feeling the coolness of the higher elevations. I was glad to zip the removable pant legs back onto my pants as I drank hot tea by the fire.
The New Tsum Hotel is operated by Lobsang Furgang who is a widower, and the father of seven children. He has added the guest house, which has several small cells upstairs to sleep. Most sleep two people with just enough room between the beds to walk. Two of the rooms are “single” rooms, which are the size of a closet. They are just big enough to lie down in, and that’s it. To sleep in one of those rooms, you have to crawl into it.
We are the only guests tonight. I ordered macaroni with yak cheese and lots of ketchup. I toured the well-stocked store which features almost everything from China. Here, people get their supplies primarily from Tibet where they can cross the border freely with yak trains.
The first thing I noticed was the Lhasa Beer in cans, which sold for a lot less than beer back toward Arughat Bazar. They also had a barley wine in a can from China that was unusual in taste, but very, very good. He also featured a big assortment of one-colour sneakers from China that sold for Rs 860. I huddled under the comforter that is in the room upstairs and soon found myself asleep.
SATURDAY MAY 1
TSUM VALLEY HIMAL HOTEL, CHUMLING, NEPAL – The sun shone early as the rooster crowed, knowing full well that no matter how much he irritated us, we could not eat him. The Buddhists here don’t eat any meat or kill any living creature for that matter. This rooster was smart, knowing that he was safe from being eaten for dinner.
I come down for breakfast in the common dining room. Today is going to be a long day as we hike through the canyon to reach the lower valley. It is cold, but the warmth of the rising sun gives promise to the day.
I look about Lokpa, which isn’t much to see. However, Mt. Manaslu appears in shining whiteness to the west, breaking through the blue sky with majesty. It is a pretty setting as we realize our new elevation. We get our things together as Ram and I set off on our entry into this forbidden valley.
For a place closed to the outside world a few years ago, the people here have done remarkably well in preparing for tourism. Guesthouses and homestays have sprung up in almost every town. Even two of the Buddhist monasteries, which had fought the invasion of tourists, now rent out rooms to tourists.
The land is Tibetan Buddhist. There is a Lama in almost every town, as well as a Gumba. Most of these don’t have any monks except at festival time. Only the larger Gumbas will have resident monks; the others simply are maintained by the village lama who comes to meditate here.
We have hiked to the top of the trail here at Lokpa, but now the trail starts its decline. There is activity at the first river where there is a new suspension bridge being built. It replaces an old rickety wooden bridge that is farther below.
Building a suspension bridge is no easy task in the Himalayas. While they are made only for foot traffic and donkey trains, everything must be hauled in on someone’s back. The cable, the metal roadbeds, and the concrete all have arrived either by donkey or man.
The Nepali has learned to carry heavy loads by using a sling that wraps around the forehead. They can pick up 100 kilos using a sling wrapped around their foreheads and carry the load up and down the mountains.
At the site of the bridge, plastic tents have been erected for entire families to live in. They will live here until the bridge is complete and then disassemble their camps. Some families will return to farming in their local villages, while others will move on to the next construction site.
There are no power tools to be had. Everything is done by hand. It is painstakingly slow, but there is no other option here.
Another suspension bridge has been built further down the trail, but we seek out the old wooden one because here the Lungwa Khola makes a series of pretty waterfalls. I stop for pictures as we can hear the rush of the Syar Khola behind us.
The trail down is steep and not always easy. Our goal is to reach the Sardi Gorge, where the Syar River flows through a narrow channel. This is the entrance to Tsum Valley Trek.
The land coming here has been lush with thick green plants and plenty of water. This was one of the attractions of the valley when Tibetan Buddhists settled here over 1000 years ago. It was also a place where they could escape their enemies as the place was difficult to enter. This isolation allowed them to maintain a lifestyle unaffected by the outside world.
The trail is on the south side of the Syar River and passes a few feet above it on steep banks. The trail is narrow as it winds down. This would be the narrowest point and the lowest point in Tsum Valley Trek. Once we pass through the gorge with its high stone walls that shoot straight up, we would begin climbing again.
We meet no foreigners on the trail but do encounter residents of Tsum Valley who greeted us warmly with “Namaste!”. While in other parts of Nepal, the presence of a foreigner doesn’t require a second look, the people here are still amazed to see us. While more visitors are coming to Tsum Valley Trek, they are still a small number.
The people of Tsum Valley have an attitude of non-violence. Hospitality is very important to them, and they greet any stranger like long-lost relatives. We would be offered eggs to eat, Roxy to drink and other items just out of kindness.
What we notice right away is that there are no houses along the trail. This is not a place where people live but simply the trail to get them through the gorge and into the valley. Unfortunately, we see little evidence of water after we get through the gorge for the remainder of the trip. My water bottle is getting low, as the humidity is around 20% and I need water.
There is only one “village” on the map, and it is called Gumkhola, where the Gum Khola River tumbles down the mountain on its way to Syar Khola. The village consists of a single house which is a tea house run by a man and his four-year-old nephew. His nephew is a cute little boy who greets you with “Namaste” and takes your money for any purchase. We arrive in mid-afternoon, where I order first tea, and then realizing it’s a tea house (store, lodging, and food), order a Coca-Cola which has been chilled by the waters of the Gum Khola.
The man and his nephew are friendly and accommodating. Ram has an opportunity to converse with them while I inspect the newborn calf that is in the shed looking at us.
Just beyond Gumkhola is a fork in the trail. Go right, and you will end up at the village of Ripche, go left, and will come to the principal village of this VDC and our destination; Chumling.
Our trail would take us across a suspension bridge over the Syar Khola and then up the north side while we gain in elevation. The trail becomes a series of switchbacks as Gumkhola becomes smaller and smaller below us.
The trail finally starts to level, and we pass under a Kani, which marks the entrance to villages in Tsum Valley. A Kani is a typical Tibetan, which delineates the division between the ritually secured boundaries of the village and the wilderness outside.
The Kanis are usually made of stone and often have brilliant paintings of Buddhist gods and protectors of the village. They can also serve as places to offer shelter from the rain. Fortunately, we did not need for that on our arrival in Chumling. The skies were sunny.
Chumling is the major village of the Chumling VDC. There are two guest houses here plus a very old Gumba which is in the process of being rebuilt due to the toll weather had taken on it over the centuries.
We stay at the Tsum Valley Himal Hotel which offers one large, clean room with thick comforters and a number of beds. It also has free filtered water. The restaurant is open on one side, and we order dinner there. Again a limited menu, but a nice place to stay.
THE MEN OF THE DONKEY TRAINS
Several men who had passed us on the donkey trains stayed at the hotel. Most of them were young and out for an adventure. It turns out that this is a good way for someone to make money up in the mountains.
The work is hard as they walk with the donkeys keeping them in line. They work 12 months of the year, earning an average of Rs 18,000 or more a month in their work. This is good money in the mountains, but one with its share of hazards. Each donkey carries around 60 – 65 kilos of goods, ranging from oil to cigarettes, whiskey to soft drinks.
Sometimes the donkeys carry propane tanks, which is the only way of getting gas cylinders into the mountain regions. Some in this group work the route from the Tibetan border to Chhoking on the Manaslu circuit. They walk in snow, rain, and through all kinds of weather in order to keep the donkeys moving. The donkeys can be stubborn at times. They wake up at 3 am each day, get the goods on the donkeys and start the drive.
The owner of the donkeys was Puina Bahadur Gurung, who is 30 years of age. He started when he was 17 as a donkey trainer and was able to save up enough money to buy his first donkeys.
Donkeys are not cheap, costing an average of Rs 70,000 to Rs 90,000 each. He explains that one donkey will give about 16 years of work, even longer if taken care of. He is married and lives in Soti Khola, and will make four monthly trips from the Tibetan border to Soti Khola. Also, he owns eight donkeys.
Usually, the owners will travel in groups as there is safety in numbers. These men also carry money from the mountains to buy goods from the people and then bring back money from what has been sold. They are not only the only source of transportation in the mountains but also the bankers.
One hazard is donkeys falling off the mountain trails. While surefooted creatures, there is great danger in donkey trains meeting and having to pass. Occasionally, one falls off the mountain, which is a loss for everyone. One fall, and usually, there is no hope for that donkey. Monsoon season brings its own dangers, which include rock slides that can wipe out an entire train in minutes.
Still, there is camaraderie amongst its men, and they seem to have a good time working the trails. It is also a good way to make good money in the mountains, where actual jobs are scarce.
SUNDAY, MAY 2
CHUMCHET, NEPAL – Chumling, and Chumchet are very close on the map, but for me, it was a day’s journey as we walked up 800 meters on a steep and narrow trail.
Chumling is located in the valley, while Chumchet is near the top of this ridge. Chumling can be described as a bit more “urban,” while Chumchet is much more traditional than Tsum Valley.
Now to describe Chumling as “urban” is certainly a stretch. It is only a collection of a few houses, two guest houses, and an ancient Gomba. But it is situated on the main trail leading to the upper valley. Chumchet sees fewer visitors. Here the people rarely wash. Faces black with soot, and clothing that has not been washed, are more typical of Chumchet. Also, many here do not speak Nepali but only their local dialect of Tibetan. Many here have no education, and there are not many opportunities unless they walk long distances to government schools which may or may not be open, depending upon the teachers.
Chumling has much more flat agricultural land, while Chumchet is more dependent upon terraced land clung to the steep sides of the mountains. The terraces might be wide enough for maybe two rows of corn before it has to drop to the next terrace.
Chumchet also has a water shortage, while Chumling has several springs to draw water from. So the differences between the two are significant.
In fairness to the people of Tsum Valley, there are some good reasons for not bathing often. One is simply the lack of water not already coming down from the glacier. Washing in glacier-fed waters is at best described as “invigorating,” while the first touch of water on your bare skin can produce a string of obscenities as your body recovers from the shock.
There is no such thing as a hot shower; you take your bath in public. Who wants to strip down their underwear when the wind is blowing cold, and the water is freezing?
Houses are not heated, except for a Chinese iron stove in the kitchen where most people cluster around. Originally, it was an open wood fire, but metal stoves from China have become common, as they come by way of neighboring Tibet. Most of the time, these stoves were not vented, allowing the extra heat to permeate the room. Of course, with the heat came soot and smoke. After a while, the residents just got used to the smoke and soot which covered everything with a black film.
The Tibetan people are most resilient to the cold. They can and do walk barefoot in the snow, suffering no ill effects of frostbite. The mothers coat the babies in yak butter to protect them from evil spirits and help insulate the body from cold. Their skin becomes like leather, especially their feet, which can easily walk barefoot over sharp rocks and climb like a mountain goat.
The people we met in Chumling were more inclined to bathe and display some hygiene that is more in keeping with other parts of the world. Chumchet was different and definitely worth seeing.
We set off that morning toward Chumchet, with the first goal to visit the monastery (Gomba) of our Chumling Paykup, which is more than 600 years old. It is one of the oldest monasteries in the valley. Today, the building is in poor shape, but we were told that the construction of a new building would begin the next day. The ravages of the High Himalayan weather had finally taken their toll on the old building.
Inside were statues of Buddha and local gods. There was a large prayer wheel that extended from floor to ceiling. There is no form of heat in the building where lamas and faithful will come to pray and meditate.
What is priceless in these gombas are not the statues but the scrolls recorded in Tibetan sacred scriptures. There are many scrolls that the lamas study. These scrolls contain writings and sayings of the Buddha, which they will study and meditate on. These gombas become the repository of sacred texts.
There are various types of Tibetan Buddhism practiced in Tsum Valley. While similar, there are some differences. At this gomba, the lama will not marry. But at Chumchet, the lama there is married and has children. There are five major sects of Tibetan Buddhism practiced in northern Nepal: Nyingmapa, kagyupa, Sakyapa, Gelugpa, and Bön. I was never able to learn the differences on this trip between the groups, except that I did learn that Nyingmapa lamas do not marry. This may be the case for this gomba.
This gomba is situated on a low hill that overlooks the farms around it. The day was sunny and the mountains were especially beautiful with their snow-covered peaks shining in the morning sun.
We followed the pathways through the farms after we left the gomba. The trail was level and narrow between stone walls marked the dividing lines between properties. The level trail soon ran out as we climbed the mountain.
The people we met were native. They smiled white smiles that contrasted with their sooty faces. We were offered eggs that they pulled out of their pockets. At another place, they were drinking Roxy and offered us a sip from their dirty soda bottles. We declined the offers but enjoyed the fellowship with them.
The trail is steep and starts to pass through the pine forest. The forest eventually gives way to thinner and thinner clusters of trees until there are no more trees. Suddenly, we enter what smells like a cedar forest. There is water flowing part of the year. Monsoon season and occasional heavy rains form temporary rivers here and give the place extra moisture. There are also numerous small caves in the rocks; There are also many Buddhist Chhortens at various promontories on the trail. They are built by the Buddhists to honor the dead and to incur goodwill for their deeds that will follow them in the afterlife, helping in their rebirth. Composed of rock, they all bear stones with inscriptions of the chant “Ommanipadme hum.” The symbols are in Tibetan but obvious enough to anyone who has encountered these before.
Chorten also provide resting places for travelers. Ram finds a nice grassy area where he lays down for a noon nap. I soon catch up to him and join him for a nap in the noon sunshine.
There are no houses or stores along the way to Chumchet. Most places are too steep to even farm in terraces, so the land is pretty much left in its natural state. We had no food for lunch, so it was a day of starvation until we could arrive in Chumchet.
We finally arrived in late afternoon at the lower part of the village, which is just a collection of houses. The people greeted us with smiles and were at first shy around the camera until they saw a picture of themselves. At that point, they started posing for pictures, grabbing anything they could find for props to pose with.
Was this their first encounter with a digital camera? Maybe. This is not a place that sees much of the outside world, and the outside world was pretty much kept from them until 2008.
We concluded our photo op event and moved to the upper village in search of the lama to see if we could stay there. The upper village was not friendly, with people refusing to even acknowledge our knocks on their doors. It was quite a contrast to those we met from the lower village.
We did find the lamas house. Lama Buchimallama has been the village lama for 10 years. His gomba is between 15 minutes to one hour above the village. It was getting dark and we sadly had to turn down the invitation to visit his gomba.
He and his family operate a homestay. They ushered us into their home and seated us on the floor in the small room that served as a home chapel. It is here we would spend the night.
They brought out blankets and put some mats down on the cold floor for us. There were no chairs in sight. The outside temperatures were already at 10°C by 5 pm and continued to drop with the setting sun. There was no stove or fire in this room, so I pulled a blanket around me. I was glad that I brought long underwear, which I would put on at a more appropriate time.
The children kept their distance, peeking into the windows of the room to look at us like specimens at the zoo. The lama went out into the kitchen and brought back a steaming pot of butter tea.
Butter tea is a Tibetan speciality. It is a tea that uses yak butter as part of its ingredients. It tasted good but leaves a strange aftertaste that takes a bit to get used to.
Adding butter to tea may seem like a lot of fat, but in their diet, they need all the fat they can get to survive the cold. Their diet consists of corn, wheat, barley and rice along with potatoes. There is no meat eaten in this area. Butter tea is one of the few sources of fat for their diet.
Ram makes some bread for dinner and they keep bringing out the butter tea. Eventually, the lama changes over to Roxy, the fermented drink from barley that the people drink for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is a clear liquid. Some of it is pretty strong; others taste a bit like water. I drank some of the Roxy with our host. It does give a warm feeling and doesn’t leave the bitter aftertaste like butter tea.
The sunset and the only light in the room came from butter lamps on the altar and a single light bulb, which was solar-powered. The children were sleeping on the porch outside of the room. There was no glass in those windows, simply fresh cold mountain air that circulated into the house. I snuggle down into my sleeping bag and throw a blanket over me. I fell asleep quite easily.
MONDAY, MAY 3
TUMJE, NEPAL – Ram and I woke to the first light of the morning sun as it poked its way into the house. It was starting out as a pretty day which would sadly turn into rain by mid-afternoon.
The children were up and looking at us, while the lama came with hot butter tea. I sip the warm liquid while Ram goes into the kitchen to make some bread for breakfast.
The children get a little braver but keep their distance as they barely come into the room. Finally, the cat comes over and sits in my lap. The children conclude that I must be alright – I didn’t eat the cat. They are still leery of me but move a little closer.
Chumchet is at 3200 meters, and we would be dropping down to Tumje which is at 2440 meters. It would be a drop of 760 meters over the course of the day.
Yesterday, we encountered tiny little blue, yellow and white flowers that dotted the sides of the trail. That would not be the case today. Except for a couple of small rivers, we would not see much vegetation along this mountain trail.
The mountain is dry, and the farther you travel. toward Tumje, the drier it appears to be. Finding water for my water bottle would be difficult for much of the trip. The trail was pretty barren, encountering very few people, although we did see a jackal above us.
Chumchet has a population according to the lama of around 40. There are about 70 houses, no guest houses, a gomba and a primary school that is usually closed, according to our host. His home appears to be the only place to stay, which is pleasant and he and his wife go out of their way to make you feel welcomed.
The downhill climb begins almost immediately. We pass through only one village on the trail down the mountain. I learned that its name is Khar, and consists of a few houses. The men were all out, and we encountered a few women working. I was hoping to find a little store that had Coca-Cola. No luck. This town had no store at all.
Ram would usually go on ahead of me as he can walk faster. I liked that because it gave me a chance to enjoy the scenery without someone on my heels. I am conscious of my slowness and know how difficult it is for the guides and porters who are native to the area and know how to walk quickly on the rock.
We continue to drop as the clouds obscure the mountains. I listen to the growing sound of thunder. The temperatures were dropping. The wind picked up and the rain began to fall at a steady pace.
I was wishing that I had brought a light pair of gloves. I use two walking sticks to move through the mountains, and my hands are freezing. Furthermore, I have an extra gumpsa (oversize handkerchief) and wrap one hand to keep it warm. The other hand screams in a frozen protest.
Down… down… down the mountain I go, sliding on rock as I maneuver through the switchbacks. There is no sight of Ram. Finally, I do see him. He has been taking shelter in a small cave in the rain.
I stand out in my yellow raincoat. The other day, I found it to be too warm; today I find the lack of porousness to be a real blessing from the raw Himalayan wind that assails me.
The village of Domje is the entrance to the upper valley. It is at the confluence of three rivers, two of which are tributaries for the Syar Khola. This is farm country, but the village does not look very prosperous.
We stay at the only guest house in the village, a rundown place where we have to climb a rickety ladder into the sleeping area. The door closes, but I’m not sure why as there is a big window that must measure at least 5 x 5 feet that is constantly open. The other side has a smaller window with no shutter or glass. The beds are simply wood. I lay out my sleeping bag and grab a blanket to throw over it. It is late afternoon and the temperatures are already down to 8° C. The wind blew through.
They lack food, although Ram is able to scrounge up some boiled potatoes which we heat. The saving grace was that they had Coca-Cola. It was good and cold. Who needs refrigeration when you have ice-cold mountains streams flowing by your place?
TUESDAY, MAY 4
PANGCHHE CAMPING AND GUEST HOUSE, LAMAGAON, NEPAL Our destination was Lamagaon, which was to us like the fabled African city of Timbuktu. It has been our goal, and our hope is to be able to borrow enough money to finish the trek. Today we would climb the mountain to the upper valley where we would finally achieve our destination.
It was 7°C at 6 am and I didn’t feel much like crawling out of the sleeping bag, no matter how pretty the sun looked. That room was cold, and it didn’t offer many shelters from the wind. At least the place where I was sleeping had no leak above me. I’m not sure the same could be said for other places in the room.
Ram fixed breakfast of flatbread, and we quickly were on our way. We crossed the fields and went up to join the trail that would lead across the suspension bridge over one of the rivers. I had diarrhoea while early on the trail. Why now, I don’t know. Fortunately, it was one of only two attacks that day, so it wasn’t such a setback.
We soon came to a very pretty little village called Gho. Built into the side of the mountain, it overlooked Domje with some colorful houses and a gomba that was shaped like a pagoda. They had one store in town, a tiny place built into the hill where the wife was cooking and their little boy peeking at us from around the door. They had ice-cold Coca Cola, which they drank with pleasure.
Domje is at an elevation of 2440 meters; Lamagaon is at 3305, so we had a lot of climbing ahead of us. We were now back on the main trail, ascending the stone steps.
We would meet a few foreigners on the trail today, a first for us. One was a lady from Austria who we would encounter again. She had been on her way to Manaslu when that trail was closed due to snow. She decided to go to Tsum Valley while waiting for the Manaslu trail to open. We would also encounter a man from Mexico and his traveling companion, a woman from Russia.
One fun part of trekking is the people you meet. Nepal draws people from all over the world, and you encounter a league of nations on the trails. We would encounter Canadians, Swiss and Germans on the trek.
We also encountered students from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu who were doing some fieldwork in the valley. At times the trail was just surrounded by barren rock, other times by flowers of a variety of colors. Butterflies would hover around us, while the hawks and eagles soared overhead.
Ram was worried about what would happen if the man was not at the guest house. What would we do for money? I told him God would provide. He gave me a strange look, asking, “God will provide?” I said don’t worry – all will work out. I have faith. He just kind of shook his head, not sure what to make of what I had just said.
Finally, we reached the top of this mountain trail around noon. We were hungry, and the next village was ChhokungParo, the principal village of this VDC for the Upper Valley. Then, We passed through the forest before we came to the kani that marked the beginning of the village. We were excited to be coming into this village, looking forward to getting some food after the night in Domje.
The upper valley is relatively level, nestled between the two mountain ranges that enclose Tsum Valley. The flat area is not especially wide, maybe just over a kilometer, but it is flat for Nepal. It is well watered, and a good place to grow food. It is these fields that attracted the first Tibetan settlers over a thousand years ago. We passed alongside rock walls that marked boundaries between farms before we passed under another kani as we entered the town.
ChhokungParo is very typically Tibetan. The houses have walls that enclose the barnyard, with only a wooden door to open to the street. Inside the walls is usually a two-story structure. The people live in the upper story while the rest is used for animals and storage of foodstuff.
The walls give the town almost a medieval feeling. The town was quiet, except for a woman who was drawing water at the well. Most everyone was out, working in the mountains. They were taking care of fields, animals or picking herbs for medicine on the mountainsides.
All three guest houses were closed. They had customers, which included the Mexican man and his Russian girlfriend who were very hungry. But there was no place open.
Ram was able to persuade the teacher in town to have his wife feed us. They took us in and fed us one of the best bowls of noodle soup I’ve ever enjoyed. I don’t know what vegetables she added, but it certainly was very flavorful.
We talked with the teacher who told us some history of the valley as we slurped down a bowl of soup. They also had some soft drinks from China that we consumed.
ChhokungParo was a disappointment because everything was closed. Still, it was a pretty village, which features its own gomba along with another major gomba just north of town.
To the north, a school is being constructed. The local population will donate at least 20% of the cost, oftentimes through local labor. The schools are built of heavy sedimentary stones that are quarried in the area. Women and donkeys will bring the heavy stones to the site where the stonemasons will then fit the stones for proper use. A good workman can easily dress a stone in 10 minutes.
Schools are a problem for Tsum Valley. The population here is small, and those with money send their children to Kathmandu or Pokhara for education. Children as young as five will walk several days to catch a transport at Soti Khola and then live in either of those cities, seeing their parents only on holidays.
Local government schools are viewed as not good. That reputation may or may not be deserved as we did meet some dedicated teachers. It is also hard to attract teachers. who come to teach in the valley from Kathmandu. It is difficult not only because of the isolation but also because most teachers do not speak the local language: Tibetan. Right from the start, the teachers discover a language barrier with the children and often the parents.
Most of the women here do not speak even Nepali. They are often illiterate and only speak the native tongue. That creates many barriers, and the children grow up first learning their dialect of Tibetan. Most of the children will get very little education unless they can escape from the valley and go to Kathmandu.
What is needed is for some of those educated ones to return and teach in the valley. They would know the local dialect, plus be educated in Nepali and English.
The trail continues to go uphill, but at a much more gradual pace in the upper valley. The valley is “Nepali level” which means it has hills but is basically level by their standards. Level ground is such a rarity, that to call something level, it can be off by a few degrees. In a land where the mountains may turn the ground at a 90° angle, something that’s even 15° is pretty flat for them.
The next village was Ngaku, which was like a miniature version of ChhokungParo. It has no guest house, but a homestay. The walls along the pathway through the village cast some long shadows in the afternoon sun. Everything was pretty much closed up, very similar to ChhokungParo. We did have one little boy follow us, and Ram found one lady to get some information from. The village did have a gomba but no lama. Instead, it had a nun that stayed there.
Our next town was Lamagaon and we got there as it was starting to get dark. The only guest house is just beyond the village and our goal was not only to stay there but to see Pradip’s friend Norgay Lama. He would be able to help us.
We arrived and were welcomed by his wife Dawa. Of course, I have no problem with staying there. Unfortunately for us, Norgay had left for Kathmandu that morning. We had unknowingly passed him on the trail. The phone had not been working, so Pradip was unable to get through to him.
Ram was feeling panic. What do we do? I told him, “God will provide”. That was our only option besides eating lizards which they frown on in this valley. Lizards aren’t all bad, as long as you have plenty of barbeque sauce. And ketchup can make anything palatable.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 5
PANGCHHE CAMPING AND GUEST HOUSE, LAMAGAON, NEPAL We went to bed early that night in their only room for visitors. It was the room used as the home altar. There was no glass in the window, and the chilly night air blew into the room.
There were no beds, but a blanket on the floor where we set up our bedding. I managed to procure an extra blanket that I threw over the sleeping bag. It would go down to around 4° C, and I wanted everything I could to keep my cocoon warm.
We sat with the family and ate mashed potatoes that Ram cooked. We sipped butter tea, which was not as bitter here as it had been up with the lama in Chumchet.
A Tibetan house consists of a single room where the stove is upstairs. You enter through a side room that is used for storage, and as your eyes adjust to the darkness (lack of windows), you find the doorway into the common room.
Two walls are reserved for the kitchen items, which are neatly organized in copper bowls and jars on shelves. Large copper water pots hold many liters of water for use. There is no running water except when the women run to the well site, draw the water and run back into the house. The houses now have cast iron stoves from China which don’t produce much heat for the houses. I sit next to the stove and shiver. Of course, the cold has little impact on these people who live with it year-round.
There is a bed/couch by the only window in the room, which has some plastic over parts of it, but the wind easily blows through the other parts. The windows are beautifully carved and are composed of small squares that would be ideal for glass. I said ideally: the glass is non-existent.
I pull a thick blanket around me as we eat dinner and then go off to our room to sleep.
Our room is a part temple, and there is a picture of the Dalai Lama along with the local lama at Rachen Gomba who is highly respected in the valley. While not as great as the Dalai Lama, his name is pretty close to the top. We would meet him later in the day.
Dawa is Norgay’s wife who looks after us. She has no idea how old she is but knows that she’s been married for over 20 years. They have four children who are all away at school either in Kathmandu or Pokhara.
Dawa has been able to do some travelling outside of the valley. She has been to Kathmandu and once travelled to India where she met the Dalai Lama.
Her work is cooking and the fields, along with making rough blankets which are common in their homes. She also runs the guest house, which she likes as she enjoys meeting the people that come to stay.
She has a helper, a young girl who is a relative named Dolpa. Dolpa has not been to school and cannot read or write. She is about 11 years old and very industrious. When she’s not cooking or cleaning, she is working at the distaff. She has a brilliant smile and is quite happy.
Across the Syar River is one of the biggest Gumbas in the valley. Rachen Gomba is the home of Lama DukpaRimpache, who heads up four different monasteries. Rachen Gomba and Mu Gomba are in the valley, while the other two are in Kathmandu. We would visit with him today. We cross the Syar River on a suspension bridge and then hike over to the monastery. The weather is cold and the skies don’t look good. I am beginning to wish I had brought my raincoat for this day trek.
The monastery covers several acres of land, and they are in the process of building a new Gumba along with rooms that will hold 113 monks and nuns. We meet some Swiss people who have come on a trek that has arrived before us. They took a camping trip, and their porters are cooking up a plate of spaghetti which is looking pretty good. I’ve been eating noodle soup and Tibetan bread for much of this trip. Having an Italian chef for a porter is quite a nice treat. I give hints about being hungry, but they only give us cups of hot tea. Ah, well, at least the tea was nice and hot on this cold and blustery day.
The nun informs us that the lama is having his lunch, and could not be disturbed. We sat around outside until the rain started, and then moved into parts of the old Gumba.
The only source of heat in that room was the butter lamps that were burning. The new energy-efficient corkscrew doesn’t provide any heat to speak of. The window in the room, of course, had no glass, so everything blew in.
We finally got to meet the lama, who is a man that is about 66 years old and suffers from a variety of health issues, which include hearing loss. He greets us cordially and invites us to sit down on the mat on the floor. He is sitting cross-legged on a low couch.
The lama was an impressive man. He has been in the study of sacred Buddhist scriptures since he was 7 years old.
His group promises celibacy when they become lamas at their graduation. Their course of study takes about 20 years and after that, they continue to study the sacred scrolls.
His age and health have slowed him down to where he now only teaches the lamas. He has a staff of six who help teach, and these people will teach others who learn. The new Gumba will be much larger and more come to impressive than the older one. It also will have glass windows.
We take a picture of the lama and thank him for his time. I could see he was tired and I didn’t want to push too hard. I did ask him about the impact of tourism on the valley and he said only time would tell. Rachen Gomba does not have lodging for tourists, but Mu Gomba does. It is one of two monasteries in the valley that provides housing for tourists.
The rain has become heavier and I try to duck into the lama’s kitchen to warm up. Ram stops me, and says I can’t go in there because only the nuns are allowed in the lama private kitchen. I guess it would be like sneaking into the Pope’s kitchen in Vatican City. Still, I’m shivering. We go back into the room with the big prayer wheel, but find little comfort in that. Finally, Ram suggests making a run for the big kitchen across the way.
We move as quickly as we could with the big cold raindrops drenching us. This is a big place, so it takes a while to get there. We arrive at the kitchen and we sit down in front of the fire.
No one objects; in fact, they even offer us butter tea. Anything hot is appreciated. I am sipping tea when one of the nuns exclaims, “It’s snowing outside!”
Sure enough, it was. Big old fat white snowflakes were mixing with the big cold raindrops. It’s May and we’re having a snowstorm
The kitchen was operated by what appeared to be teenage monks and nuns who were interacting more like adolescents than holy people. Of course, you can’t expect much from that age group. The girls were working; the boys goofing off.
The girls started to cook some chapatti bread, which I kept making hints at how hungry I was. It was now 2:30 in the afternoon and we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. We got more tea, but the chapatti was for the monks.
We sat for more than an hour before deciding that we should make a break for it back to the guest house. Actually, it was Ram’s idea. I was more thinking about finding an empty room and sleeping there for the night. With 113 rooms, there ought to be a vacancy somewhere. I had not worn my long underwear and didn’t have a decent jacket to wear. Also, I had brought a sweatshirt, but it was no protection against the rain/snow mix. I had left my raincoat at the guest house as it hadn’t looked like rain that morning.
The semi-frozen concoction from the sky finally slowed down and we made a break for it. The dog came out and barked at us. I don’t know why, but it seems that most Buddhist monasteries have a mean dog that doesn’t much like visitors. This dog was fortunately on a chain. It was big and ugly and seemed to be willing to violate the no meat rule of the valley. Of course, the meat it wanted was me.
We left the Gomba and ran down the hill, over the dry river bed and then up the sides to join the bridge over the Syar Khola. The trip was a lot faster this time, no doubt because of the motivation to escape the weather.
We arrived back at the guest house when we learned that God had indeed provided. Norgay had come back to Lamagaon.
THURSDAY, MAY 6
PANGCHHE CAMPING AND GUEST HOUSE, LAMAGAON, NEPAL As I told Ram, God would provide. And God does work in mysterious ways.
Norgay had been on his way to Kathmandu. He had got to Lokpa when he learned that the border had reopened to Tibet. The border had been closed due to snow, and now was open again. He was going to assemble a yak train to bring supplies from Tibet to the valley. He spent the night and then turned around and came back to Lamagaon.
Norgay is a businessman who has many different businesses. He has a guest house, and a farm organizes yak trains and does a variety of trading. One has to multi-task in this valley if he hopes to survive. There is little room for specialists up here.
He had not heard from Rupchandra because the phone has been out. The phones up here work part-time, but they bill you for full time. But he recognized his friend’s name and said he would help us out.
Today he would be out of the house until late, but he would meet later with us. Our day was to climb to the cave monastery which hangs precariously on the side of the mountain.
Thankfully, the weather changed. The snow that had fallen only stuck to the mountain, adding to its beauty and lustre. We walked to the next village of Bursa where we got the key to the monastery (for a fee of Rs 300) and then began our climb.
The place is officially known as Milarepa PirenPhu Cave Monastery and is named for St. Milarepa who brought Buddhism to this valley almost 1000 years ago.
From what the locals tell me, this valley was composed of several warlike tribes. St. Milarepa came and medicated in this cave, and then spread the word about a better way of life through the teachings of the Buddha. He was born in 1052 AD and lived until the age of 83. St. Milarepa brought the entire valley under the influence of Buddhism.
He taught non-violence, which included not eating any type of meat. No animal could be killed for food, as it had a soul and was probably someone reincarnated. He taught respect for all living things.
We climbed up the side of the mountain to the cave monastery, which is in two parts. The lower is the monastery while the upper part has a second time where there is a footprint that is said to belong to St. Milarepa in the rock. It is encased in a shrine and easy to find.
The trip up was steep, but the views of the valley were outstanding. Rachen Gomba stood out in beauty below, its red walls reflecting in the sunlight in contrast to the white mountains that were covered with new snow.
We first reached what looked like a motel. It had been used for monks to stay and pray, but it appeared to not be of much use these days. The place would make a wonderful guest house, with visitors waking up to a gorgeous view of the valley below.
Above was the first building with its prayer wheel and altar, featuring Buddha in the middle and surrounded by two gods. The floor was rough boards, and it was a quiet place to meditate.
Higher up was the cave, which is now covered by a wooden building. We entered it and saw the footprint of St. Milarepa in the rocks.
We stayed up there a long time, gazing at the beauty of the area. It is so incredibly pristine up there. The villages look so small from up here and the mountains so incredibly big. One cannot truly appreciate the size of the Himalayas until they have sat on a mountaintop and looked across at the other mountains. The only thing small in the Himalayas is the man.
We descended down the mountain to a place. which had all kinds of Buddhist flags flying. It was the field of flags that had been set up here in the valley. There were a number of monuments, of which one of them told the history of Tsum Valley. It said the name “Tsum” meant “vivid” and the people of the valley are called “Tsumbas”. We stayed for a while, taking in the quietness of the surroundings.
We returned to the village of Bursa and had lunch at Milarepa Restaurant and Lodge, a new guest house that’s being developed. From here, we returned the key and made our way back to Lapagaon to rest before our return journey tomorrow.
We had to cut some of the trip short because of time. My walking, as well as time for research and writing, had cut into our travel plans. We had hoped to travel to Mu Gomba, about a day’s walk to the north and then down to Gomba Lundgang at the base of the glacier for Ganesh Himal. That would have to be another time.
Ram was going to leave in just over a week for Tibet and I needed to get to the Ganesh Himal region. The day was windy, so I found a spot by a wall at the guest house that acted as a windbreak. I played some music on my MP3 player and did some writing. The temperature today was around 20°C. Balmy for Tsum Valley.
FRIDAY, MAY 7
GUEST HOUSE, RIPCHE, NEPAL Norgay returned late from his work, so, we didn’t have a chance to really talk to him until this morning before we started our return journey.
Norgay proved a leader in the area. We talked about tourism and its impact. He invited me to return and do a seminar for the people of the VDC; He was willing to host it. I’ve been doing some seminars in Kathmandu and would welcome the opportunity to return to Tsum Valley.
The area has only been open to foreigners since 2008, they have a pretty good job preparing for tourists. They have set up guest houses and homestay homes in the region. There is signage in English and they are working to educate the local population.
The area opened up at the request of the people. Those who had the to pushed open the tourism make for people. They have responded well while working to maintain the valley’s unique culture.
We said goodbye. He gave Ram the money we needed, plus as a parting gift gave of a can of Lhasa along with a pouch of dry noodles. There wouldn’t be much until we got to Ripche.
We got a late start, but made good time, passing through ChhokungParo was still closed up. found no place to get food. passed through the and were now back in the wilderness large gathering of langurs crossed our path. They crossed the trail, but then stopped to look at us. They kept their distance, but there was no great fear in their eyes. We watched them for a while before continuing on.
Ram and I stopped for lunch and enjoyed our beer and dry noodles. We sat and talked as we looked at the beauty of the area. We finally rose and made our way down the mountain. Our journey was pretty easy until we got back to Gho and had to take a different trail. This one was not on most tourist maps and was quite steep. We passed the small gomba and then down to the river which was a greenish-blue color from its glacier origins. The bridge was pretty rickety. While many of the bridges were being replaced in the valley, this had not been one of them. We crossed and made our way past Domje.
At Domje, we could have gone down to Gomba Lungdang. It is a large Gumba where they have rooms for tourists at the base of the Ganesh Himal Mountains. I had wanted to go there, but it takes between 6 and 12 hours to travel. For me, it’s the 12-hour trip one way, and we were running out of time.
The trail to Ripche is on the south side of the Syar River. We crossed the suspension bridge over the Langtang Khola and up the side. The north side of the Syar River is a well-developed trail, but the south side has a long way to go before it can actually rival the north side. It was late afternoon and we would end up traveling the last part of the trail in the dark. A local woman ended up joining us as we crossed rickety wooden bridges that were being made obsolete by new suspension bridges.
Our destination was the village of Ripche, which overlooks the Lower Valley. The village is 105 meters higher than Chumling, which it overlooks. An agricultural village, it doesn’t offer that much except a really good homestay where we spent the night. It is really more than a homestay, where they have made a guest room out of their home Buddhist shrine. There are two beds inside to which we happily set up our sleeping bags and went to sleep.
SATURDAY, MAY 8
TSUM HOTEL GUEST HOUSE, LOKPA, NEPAL-We woke up to the rays of the sun coming into the room as the lady of the house was making Nepali popcorn. Popcorn is a common snack up in the mountains as they grow it here. Popcorn is different from what we are used to in the West. Here, the kernels don’t necessarily pop up white and fluffy. Also, the ones that don’t pop don’t break your teeth if you try to eat them.
Most don’t really pop up fluffy, but will usually be small and still in the “shell”. The “shell” is cracked, and you simply eat it by the handful without salt or any other type of spice. We had arrived at night, so we couldn’t see anything outside. Now that it is light, we can see around the village. Ripche is a small village at 2470 meters. It doesn’t offer the traveller much in the way of facilities. I saw no store and there is just one homestay. It does offer a great view of the valley as you look at the mountains and look down at the village of Chumling. You can also see Chumchet higher on the mountainside.
We left early and began our trek toward Lokpa as we were to finally exit the valley. It is a steep trail down the mountain from Ripche to Gumkhola where we stopped for a Coca-Cola and washed in the ice-cold water. I was pretty filthy from the trip over the last few days. My feet were covered with layers of dust, even though I had on shoes and socks. The Nepali dust penetrates everything, it knows no boundaries. What I would really like is a hot shower, but that won’t happen until this trek is over.
When trekking, you leave behind the things you normally take for granted, which includes personal hygiene. The places where you can really bathe with any privacy are few and far between. You know it’s time for a bath when the mule passes you and farts, and that improves the air quality.
From Gumkhola, we follow the trail down toward the gorge that marks the lower valley. The return trip offers us a different view of the gorge and the trail is steep going to the river’s edge. The water is still roaring and foaming over the rocks as we bid goodbye to the Tsum Valley.
The trail then turns upward as we ascend to Lokpa. We will stay at the same guest house, but this time discover it is full. A group of Canadian college students have come and are pretty much occupying the entire place. I manage to get the last room available – basically, a closet and I crawl into the room as it is only a bed, nothing more. I organize my backpack around me and fall asleep.
SUNDAY, MAY 9
HOTEL PHILIMGAUN AND LODGE, PHILIM, NEPAL-I woke to a much warmer morning than I had when I came through this way a number of days before. The rooster woke me up with his prolific crowing. I don’t know what he had to crow about, but he was certainly pleased with himself. I kept telling myself that chicken dinner was something I could really appreciate this morning.
The flies buzzed in the room and the smoke from the kitchen blew through the cracks. It was already 19°C.
I chatted with the Canadians at breakfast about their trip. They were on their way into Tsum Valley Trek; I was on my way out. One girl commented that she thought I had sleep apnea, which wouldn’t surprise me. She said she could hear my snoring; I was amazed that anyone was that awake last night to even notice. The walls are simply 1″ boards with plenty of gaps between them.
We said goodbye and were on our way back toward the main trail. The skies were clear and we could see Mt. Manaslu clearly. We walked along the trail, past the sign that said, “Welcome to Tsum Valley Trek”. We watched eagles soaring, floating on the thermals effortlessly above us as we descended down into the valley.
The trip was a short one today as we decided to stay at Philim. I was hungry for something besides bread and I knew that they had vegetable mo-mo with cheese. We stayed in one of the cabins at Hotel PhilimGaun and Lodge.
The place has room to shower; with a large picture window in front ( guess that’s to entertain the neighbors). Water comes into the room in a hose. Don’t worry about temperature control; it doesn’t exist. What comes out is what you get. I grab my soap and head for the shower facility to get my first real bath in over a week. It takes a lot of scrubbing to get some of the layers of dust and dirt off your legs.
Philim has no electricity – the power station was taken out by a rock slide. They do have solar power, but not for the rooms. The cabin is small, barely enough for two beds. It does have windows and a back door. I open the back door and there is the start of a toilet as well as a very tiny porch. The porch overlooks the river valley as we’re back to overlooking the Budhi Gandaki Nadi. We have dropped in elevation, and we can feel it is much warmer than what we’ve been used to. No chance of snow tonight in the valley. It is warm.
The food is good, and I get to enjoy the local fellowship. The owner is also a teacher, and some of his teacher friends were gathered in the gazebo. They bid me join them and we have a good visit.
It is a relaxing day, and it is nice that we weren’t pushing hard to reach a location.
MONDAY, MAY 10
YURUKHOLA, NEPAL-We left Philim in the morning, setting off for points south. The day started out sunny, but the rain returned in the afternoon. That limited our choices for destinations, and we chose to stay in the sometimes village of Yuru Khola.
Yuru Khola is a fascinating place. The village is located at the confluence of the Yuru Khola which meets the Budhi Gandaki Nadi at that place. The local people catch fresh fish from the Yuru Khola and if you’re lucky, you will enjoy fresh fish for dinner. We were not so fortunate this evening as their fish is popular and sells quickly.
The village is composed of basically one extended family that has built wooden buildings along the way. They have set up a store, restaurant and guest house right on the trail. When I say, right on the trail, I literally mean right on the trail. Donkeys and people pass within inches of you when you are sitting down to eat.
In the monsoon season, they often have to abandon the village and move to higher ground. There are some houses back into the hills built on stilts. They can sometimes ride out the monsoons there when the Budhi Gandaki Nadi rises well above its banks. Other times, they have to move out completely to higher ground.
Once the water recedes, they reclaim their building and it’s back to business. The place also offers camping and there was one group camping on the rocks, polished smooth by the force of the river.
I hated to leave Philim as it is a delightful village. It has stores and places to eat along with a school. The town is pleasant and the people are very friendly. I slept good and enjoyed the privacy of the cabin. The walk was pretty uneventful in the morning.
Ram and I headed down the hillside toward the long suspension bridge that would cross over to the west side of the river. We retraced our steps through the villages of Sirdibas and Salleri. Our goal for lunch was Jagat and it was during lunch that the rain moved in. I had spaghetti which-a real treat.
Jagat is the entrance to the Manaslu Conservation Area. The streets are smooth, large stones have been used to pave them.
The thunder crashed and the lightning filled the sky as we concluded our meal. The rains came, and we hid in the hotel until we thought it was passing.
Darn rain wasn’t passing. We got out and on the trail and sure enough, here it comes again! We hurried to the end of town where we found another guest house and sat under the overhang waiting for the rain to stop.
The rain was delaying us, and we decided to stay at Yuru Khola. We would have to duck the weather a few more times as we moved southward.
Our lodging at Yuru Khola was basically one huge bed. The owners had put a number of beds together and you simply claimed a spot. Fortunately, it was only Ram and me in the room. We choose opposite ends of the Goliath-size bed and slept through the night. We could hear the rain coming off and on.
The lodge there at Yuru Khola has no toilets, but it does have a back door. It is what is known as an “open toilet”. You find the spot that works for you and do your business accordingly. It is times like these when it is really great to be male.
TUESDAY, MAY 11
SHANGRI-LA HOME COTTAGE AND TENT HOUSE, KHORLABESI, NEPAL-The rains had left us during the night and the day opened beautiful and sunny. It would stay that way all day as we made our way south.
We had interviewed the teacher in the morning as she was heading south. She would cover much more than us today. She’s Nepali, and the Nepalis can walk through the mountains like a mountain goat. She was also anxious to see her husband. I was concerned about the physical exertion as she was rather far along in her pregnancy. Nepali women are quite hardy; they can take the exercise with great stride. I would see more of that later when we reached the village of Dobhan.
Yesterday, the worst part of the trail was the summer shortcut just above Yuru Khola. Ram went out of his way to make me a different way than down the rickety ladder.
He took me down to the river and got large stones which he put near the shore so I could walk on them. The shore rises abruptly with huge rock walls, so he made the trail in the water. I was quite touched. That was going above and beyond in service.
The trail continued along the east side of the river until near Tatopani when a suspension bridge would cross the Budhi Gandaki Nadi and we would again be on the west side.
In Dobhan, they are building a new school. The men are quarrying the stone and then dressing it at the building site. The Nepali government requires that each community invest 20% into the school. Most of this is done through in-kind labor.
The women were working in the school. They were carrying the stones from the quarry to the building. Women would go as a group, place the stones in a sling that wrapped around their foreheads, and then carry the stones to the worksite where their husbands were preparing the stones.
Women’s went as a group, laughing and joking along the way. It was like watching an army of ants move, as they carried stones almost the size of them. I was so impressed to see this kind of commitment to building a school for the village children. It shows what teamwork can be done when people work together for a common cause.
Our goal had been to bypass Tatopani and stay in Khorlabesi. I had been impressed with this little village. We entered the town, following what appeared at first to be grapevines. They were not, but another plant that is harvested and may prove to be a source of alternative energy for Nepal.
There are two guest houses in town, and we stayed at the Shangri-la Home Cottage and Tent House. It has a motel-like look to it and they are building more units. They also have a shower facility, which consists of a hose and a picture window. I don’t know what it is about picture windows in shower rooms, but it seems to be quite the rage up here. Maybe this is the Nepali answer to sex education.
Like everywhere, the menu is pretty limited. What did intrigue me is that in June, the Chum Valley Winery is opening. The owner of the guest house said his brother was opening it, and that they would be producing wines from local fruits. It is a bold step, but definitely a good idea as it’s another way of producing income from local sources for the visitors.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 12 — The Last day of Tsum Valley Trek
MACHHAKHOLAGAON, NEPAL – Machhakholagaon is a short, easy hike from Khorlabesi. This was our final destination as I would spend a couple of nights here before going on to Ganesh Himal.
Ram was to leave me here as he would continue his trek down to Soti Khola and then back to Kathmandu. He had another trek ahead of him, guiding a group to Tibet. I hated to see him go, as he had been such a good guide. I felt glad I was able to bond with him.
Ram has his degree in education but was unable to find work in his field. He does advise his village school, and we are to get together and visit his village so I can see the work they are doing. The school, like most of the schools in rural Nepal, needs a lot of support and help. The schools are underfunded, the facilities lacking, and classrooms crowded. The teachers I have met in this region struck me as dedicated and concerned about the lack of educational opportunities for the children. The children’s only hope is education. It is something that the parents take seriously in Nepal.
We stayed at a wonderful little place in Machhakholagaon Chum Valley Hotel with three floors and some nice rooms. The food is exceptionally good, and I enjoy some time to relax before the next trek.
Conclusion of Tsum Valley Trek
The trek to Tsum Valley is not that difficult. It offers an incredible opportunity to see a Tibet that existed 100 years before the Chinese invasion. The valley retains its Buddhist roots and peaceful attitude, even when confronted with the problems of the 21st Century.
How will tourism impact this valley? Like the lama said, only time will tell. Progress cannot be stopped, but I hope that the growth can be controlled in such a way that the flavor and peacefulness of the people are not lost.
I felt privileged to be there and to experience the natural beauty first-hand. I interacted with the culture and came away with a feeling of awe and respect.
That’s why I trek at my age. I love the people I meet and learn so much. The treks for me are not easy, but whatever pain I may feel is more than made up for by what I see and learn.
I was very fortunate to have a good guide like Ram. A good guide makes a big difference in whether you enjoy your trek or despise it. Ram went out of his way to work with me, showing great patience with my slowness and disabilities.
Tsum Valley Trek – a great experience!