Nepal, two years on: why the time to go is now
In April 2015, Nepal hit global headlines when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated the country, killing almost 9000 people. Two years on, Nepal continues to…
The ANNAPURNA REGION’s popularity is well deserved: nowhere else do you get such a varied feast of scenery and hill culture and the logistics are relatively simple. Treks can all start or finish close to Pokhara, which is a relaxing place to end a trek and a handy place to start one, with its clued-up guesthouses, equipment-rental shops and easy transportation to trailheads. With great views just two days up the trail, short treks in the Annapurnas are particularly feasible, and good communications mean the region is also fairly safe, from the point of view of medical emergencies. Tourism is relatively sustainable, too, thanks to ACAP, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project. The inevitable consequence is commercialization. The popular treks in this region are on a well-beaten track, and unless you step aside from them you’re more likely to be ordering bottled beer from a laminated menu than drinking homebrew with locals.
The Annapurna Himal faces Pokhara like an icy, crenellated wall, 40km across, with nine peaks over 7000m spurring from its ramparts and Annapurna I reigning above them all at 8091m. It’s a region of stunning diversity, ranging from the sodden bamboo forests of the southern slopes (Lumle, northwest of Pokhara, is the wettest village in Nepal) to windswept desert (Jomosom, in the northern rain shadow, is the driest).
The himal and adjacent hill areas are protected within the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). A quasi-park administered by a non-governmental trust, ACAP aims are to protect the area’s natural and cultural heritage and ensure sustainable benefit for local people. To take the pressure off local forests, the project has set up kerosene depots and installed microhydroelectric generators, and supports reforestation efforts. Lodge owners benefit from training and low-interest loans, enabling them to invest in things like solar water heaters and efficient stoves. Safe drinking-water stations (bottled water is banned), rubbish pits, latrines, health posts and a telephone service have all been established on the proceeds of park entry fees. ACAP also sets fixed lodge prices, and agrees menu prices (which vary by area), to prevent undercutting and price wars; these prices should be respected rather than negotiated – though the system does seem to be breaking down, and lodge owners get around it by putting “special items” on their menus.
The ANNAPURNA SANCTUARY is the most intensely scenic short trek in Nepal, and one of the most well-trodden – there are lodges and tea stops at hourly intervals or less, until the highest sections at least. The trail takes you into the very heart of the Annapurna range, passing through huge hills in Gurung country with ever-improving views of the mountains ahead, then following the short, steep Modi Khola, before you pass into the most magnificent mountain cirque: the Sanctuary. Wherever you stand, the 360-degree views are unspeakably beautiful, and although clouds roll in early, the curtain often parts at sunset to reveal radiant, molten peaks.
The Sanctuary is usually an eight- to twelve-day round trip from Pokhara. The actual distance covered isn’t great, but altitude, weather and trail conditions all tend to slow you down. The trail gains more than 2000m from Ghandruk to the top, at 4100m, so you’d be wise to spread the climb over three or four days – and dress for snow. Frequent precipitation makes the higher trail slippery at the best of times, and in winter it can be impassable due to snow or avalanche danger.
There are two main approaches, both converging on the major village of Chhomrong after two or three days’ walk (though hardy types have made it in one exhausting day). At the time of writing, however, new roads were being built towards the largest villages, Ghorepani and Ghandruk, which will reduce the walk-in – though it may take some time for regular bus or jeep services to become established, and longer still for this area to become a tourist rather than a trekking destination.
The Phedi approach
Arguably the most satisfying approach route begins at Phedi (1160m), a mere twenty-minute taxi drive west of Pokhara. From here the trail ascends the wooded Dhampus ridge, climbing steeply up the last hour to Pothana (1900m), where you’re rewarded with fine views of the mountains, including Machapuchare, the “Fish Tail” mountain. From the col at Bhichok Deurali (2080m), a well-paved trail descends again through thicker rhododendron forest, then contours and gently switchbacks through cultivated hillsides around the village of Tolka (1700m) before reaching Landruk, a substantial Gurung village with wonderful views of Annapurna South. From here the trail follows the Modi Khola upwards, crossing the river at New Bridge (1340m) and climbing very steeply above Jhinu Danda (near which there are good hot springs) to Chhomrong.
The Nayapul alternative
A slightly more direct approach leaves the Jomosom road at the Nayapul bridge, sloping down to the lively town of Birethanti (1050m), where you enter the Annapurna Conservation Area – sign in at the gate. From here, the trail pushes up the steep, terraced west bank of the Modi Khola. (A road already runs towards Ghandruk as far as Syauli Bazaar and Chane, though there was very little traffic on it at the time of writing; permission to build a dam near New Bridge has been given, however, so expect more road-building and disruption.) You can either climb to the major settlement of Ghandruk (1940m) – given those 900m of ascent, this is likely to be enough for one day – or for a still more direct approach stay low in the Modi Khola valley, leaving the main road-cum-trail at Syauli Bazaar and bypassing Ghandruk on the way up to New Bridge and Jhinu Danda via Siwai. Leaving Ghandruk, the usual trail detours west to the crest of the fine Komrong Danda (2654m), joining the Ghorepani trail at Tadapani (2630m) before descending to Kimrong (1890m), then contouring up to Chhomrong (2170m), with its distinctly upmarket lodges and its viewpoint at Gurung Hill, two hours above.
From Chhomrong to the Sanctuary
The ACAP post at Chhomrong can inform you about weather and avalanche conditions higher up the trail. They’ll also clue you up about altitude, which poses real danger from here on up – not least the danger that you won’t reach the Sanctuary if you go too fast. Actual walking time from Chhomrong to the Sanctuary is in the region of twelve hours, but you should plan to spread the trip over three or four days. Be aware that in the autumn peak season, lodges can fill early, especially higher up, and trekkers often end up sleeping on the dining-room floor; make sure you have a warm sleeping bag.
The route above Chhomrong is simple and spectacular. After a difficult descent and re-ascent, and then another descent after Sinuwa on a three-hundred-step stone staircase (which gets very slippery in the wet or snow), you start steadily ascending the west side of the deep and forested Modi Khola valley making for a narrow notch between the sheer lower flanks of Machapuchare and Hiunchuli. There are no real villages past Sinuwa, so you ascend past regularly spaced (every two hours or so) clusters of cottagey lodges at Sinuwa (2360m), Bambu (2310m), Dobhan (2600m) and Himalaya (2920m). Bamboo thickets give way to oak and rhododendron, then to birch, and Annapurna III and Gangapurna loom at the head of the gorge. Note that there are no settlements or lodges at Kuldhigar or Bagar, as suggested on many maps.
Just short of the Hinku Cave (3170m), an overhanging rock where langur monkeys sometimes congregate, there’s a small shrine in the middle of the path to a local Gurung guardian deity, Pojo Nim Baraha; the tradition is that meat should not be brought above here. The tree cover thins out substantially at this point, and the avalanche risk from the steep slopes above is at its worst – especially in the areas immediately below the cave and above and below Deurali (3239m), though for the most part avalanches are only something to really worry about after heavy snows (typically Jan to Feb), or during the spring melt (March and April). If conditions are dangerous, the trail may be diverted to the opposite bank or shut altogether – ask before proceeding up. Once beyond this sanctuary “gate”, you reach high pasture and Machapuchare Base Camp (3700m). A good tip is to sleep at the more comfortable, larger lodges here and do the final ascent and descent (alongside the glacial moraine) in one long day, thus avoiding an uncomfortable high-altitude night at Annapurna Base Camp (4100m). Note too that lodges at both get impossibly crowded in peak season, and shut altogether after heavy snowfall, especially from early December.
Descending is astonishingly fast, compared to going up – it’s one fast or two leisurely days down to Chhomrong. It makes sense to return along the alternative approach route, or you can make a longer loop via Ghorepani and Poon Hill.
The Himalayan viewpoint of POON HILL (3193m) provides a tempting destination amid the steep, lush hill country between Pokhara and the Kali Gandaki. This trek doesn’t take you right in among the mountains but, weather permitting, there are outstanding vistas and handsome Gurung and Magar villages. The trails are wide and well maintained (though steep in places), the lodges are large and comfortable, and the altitude shouldn’t present any problems – though you will need warm clothes at night. Rain gear is advisable.
Most people do Poon Hill as a loop from Pokhara, starting at Birethanti (1050m), just below the roadside settlement of Nayapul. A road is being built up the Bhurungdi Khola valley towards Ghorepani (and at the time of writing had already reached Tikhedunga), but there’s little traffic, and for most people it’s still two shortish but relentlessly uphill days on foot via the handsome Magar village of Ulleri (1960m) and some fine rhododendron forest to Ghorepani (2860m) or, a little higher up, the thrumming cluster of lodges at Ghorepani Deurali. There’s no need to set your alarm at either, as you’ll be awakened at 4am by the daily stampede of Poon Hill sunrise-seekers. If clouds block your view, as they often do, it’s worth hanging on for an extra day for the sight of Annapurna South apparently looming over Annapurna I, and the hump-shouldered pyramid of Dhaulagiri.
Beyond Ghorepani Deurali, the trail descends the thriving, terraced valley of the Ghar Khola (and there’s a road being built here too; coming down, you’ll meet it near Shikha, though the trail stays off it and there’s next to no traffic). It finally plunges down to cross the Kali Gandaki on a splendid suspension bridge and arrive at the busy townlet of Tatopani (1190m), a fairly demanding day’s walk from Ghorepani. At Tatopani, there are banks (no ATMs as yet), restaurants, a health post and all the other facilities you might need, as well as the well-maintained hot springs beside the river, from which the town gets its name (it means “hot water” in Nepali). Frequent buses and jeeps head down to Beni and Pokhara.
For a slower return to Pokhara, head east from the old, lower village of Ghorepani, making for Ghandruk – one long or two short days’ walk. The first section to the lonely little cluster of basic lodges at Deurali (not to be confused with the Deurali above/north of Ghorepani) is a fine ridge walk through rhododendron forest, with great views of Dhaulagiri and Machapuchare, especially from the lodges perched at Ban Thanti (3180m); the descent to Tadapani (2630m) is steep and slippery. At Tadapani you join the Ghandruk route described under the Nayapul approach to the Annapurna Sanctuary, but you could easily make a longer loop, crossing to the east bank of the Modi Khola to rejoin the road at Phedi.
The trek up (or down) the Kali Gandaki gorge from the pilgrim site of Muktinath and the Wild-West-style regional capital of JOMOSOM was for many years the classic Himalayan sampler, and the most developed stretch of trail in Nepal, with food and lodging closer to what you’d find in Thamel than the usual hill fare. Since the construction of an 83km road from Beni to Jomosom, on the west bank of the Kali Gandaki, many would-be trekkers are going elsewhere, though Indian pilgrims are replacing them (especially during festivals during auspicious seasons, notably April to June, and mid-August to mid-September – during the latter season, especially, guesthouses are full to bursting with tour groups). It’s still perfectly possible to do the trek, however, following new trails on the steeper eastern side of the valley or paths that weave on and off the road. Guides can show you some fantastic day hikes and overnight trips up from the valley floor, too: little-trekked trails lead to North Annapurna Base Camp, the Dhaulagiri Icefall (way out west of Larjung) and the high-level Dhampus Pass (5182m), the key to Dolpo.
Many trekkers fly to Jomosom and walk up to Muktinath, then down again, but you’ll have more sense of arrival (and acclimatize better) if you do the trek the hard way. The best approach route on foot is now from Nayapul to Tatopani via Poon Hill.
Tatopani to Jomosom
From Tatopani to Jomosom is typically three or four days’ walk – or a tough, scary day in buses and/or jeeps. It’s possible to avoid the road most or all of the way by following the eastern bank. That said, landslides are a perennial problem, meaning that the east-bank trails can be tricky or impassable in places – and information about the state of the route can be hard to come by. The main settlements (and most of the trekking lodges) are on the western side, and people there aren’t exactly keen to see the foot traffic pass them by. Path maintenance on the eastern side isn’t exactly a priority, for the same reason. Temporary wooden bridges make crisscrossing relatively simple in the dry season, but when the river is high, you may have to make strategic crossings at the permanent suspension bridges and resign yourself to walking on the road for longer stretches. Taking a guide who has walked the route recently would ease the logistics considerably.
Above Tatopani (1190m), where the trail from Poon Hill joins the road up from Beni, the route passes into the world’s deepest gorge, the Kali Gandaki, with the 8000m hulks of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna towering on either side. Above Tatopani, you often have to stick to the west bank, and near the old Magar village of Dana, you enter the steepest, sheerest part of the gorge; there’s a lookout point below the waterfall of Rupse Chhahara. The east bank trail from Kopchepani, just above and opposite the falls, up to Ghasa (2010m) is relatively good.
At Ghasa, you enter Lower Mustang district and the homeland of the Buddhist Thakali people – from here on up, the river is known locally as the Thak Khola, and subtropical greenery starts to give way to Alpine trees and shrubs. You usually have to stick to the west bank from Ghasa to the village of Chhyo, opposite Lete (2480m), but from there a good east-bank trail climbs up to Kunjo and the little lake of Titi Tal before dropping down, partly on a rough road, to the well-established trekking village of Kokhetanti (2545m), where you are usually forced to re-cross the river to Larjung, on the west bank – the east-bank route up to Tukuche via Sirkung and Sauru is particularly prone to landslides. The relatively large and prosperous village of Tukuche (2590m) is the place to cross back onto the east bank, heading up via Chimang, with its lovely Dhaulagiri views, and Chairo, a Tibetan settlement. It’s usually possible to continue up the east bank directly to Thini, but it would be a pity not to cross over short of Dhumba to handsome, stony Marpha (2670m), which sits amid apricot and apple orchards – the cider and brandy are famous. The administrative centre of Jomosom (2720m), with its busy airstrip, looks like a stony Wild West settlement, but is useful for supplies, doctors, banks, police and so on, and great for those seeking respite – it has plenty of relatively fancy hotels.
Jomosom to Muktinath
Above Jomosom, the valley starts to level out, and you enter a dry and powerfully Tibetan-flavoured highland region. A few motorbikes and jeeps plug dustily up the rough road, though paths are easy enough to find, often on the stones of the valley floor. Beware the extraordinary late-morning and afternoon katabatic winds, however, which tear up from the south after about 11am, rushing to fill the void left by the hot air rising from the highlands above. The winds carry enormous amounts of grit and dust from the riverbed – and, nowadays, vehicle dust too – meaning that a scarf as a mask, a hat and sunglasses are vital. If you’re heading into the wind, coming down, walking can be anything from severely trying to almost impossible.
At the romantic fortress town of KAGBENI, with its medieval buildings and terracotta Buddhist figures, you’re on the very edge of the Tibetan plateau, and can gaze north into Upper Mustang. What with the expensive permit that’s necessary to visit (see The TIMS card), this really is a forbidden kingdom. Eastwards, however, it’s an open-access, 1000m climb towards Muktinath, up a delightful, open side valley dotted with orchards and lined with dry-stone walls. The trail crisscrosses the road, and takes you through the impressive village of Jharkot (3550m), where there’s a fine gompa. Jeeps can take you as far as Rani Pauwa (3710m), where dozens of hotels cater to the Indian pilgrim trade; from there you’d have to walk the last twenty breathless minutes to Muktinath, or buy a seat on the “Muktinath Express” – which means riding pillion on a motorcycle.
The Mahabharata mentions poplar-shaded MUKTINATH (3760m) as the source of mystic shaligrams, stone ammonite fossils found in the Kali Gandaki gorge. It is one of the most important religious sites in the Himalayas – and ever since the arrival of the road, a pilgrim boomtown. A priest will show you around the Vishnu temple, with its 108 waterspouts (where pilgrims bathe in the freezing water) and its shrine sheltering a tiny perpetual natural-gas flame hidden half-underground beside a little spring – a particularly holy combination of earth, air, fire and water. Yartung, a madly exotic festival of horseriding, is held at Muktinath around the full moon of August–September.
If you’re returning to Jomosom, it’s possible to take a dramatic, high-level side route over the shoulder of the hills to the southeast of Ranipauwa, descending on precipitous paths (and crossing the Panda Khola on temporary bridges – so ask before setting out) via the old-world Thakali village of Lupra. If you’re heading up over the Thorung La to follow the Annapurna Circuit towards Manang, bear in mind that there are a couple of basic high-season-only teahouse lodges at Chabarbuk (4200m), also known as Phedi, just before the zigzagging, four-hour climb up the pass begins; sleeping here would get you an hour’s head start in the morning.
The MARSYANGDI VALLEY, which curls around the east side of the Annapurna range, was once the less commercialized half of the Annapurna Circuit, trekked only by the hardcore few intending to cross the 5415m pass of the Thorung La and descend towards Jomosom. With the opening of a new road, it is eclipsing its cousin as a destination in itself and the base for some stunning side treks. At the time of writing you could drive all the way to Manang – subject to landslides and the usual roughness of road – except for one short section between Tal and Karte, which was still under construction. Expect this section to be completed, but other sections to be periodically buried and rebuilt.
The main trailhead is at Besisahar, but in good conditions jeeps penetrate the valley as far as Syange. With a guide, you could also walk in two to three days from Begnas Tal, via Nalma Phedi and Baglungpani, to Khudi, just north of Besisahar.
The Upper Marsyangdi to Manang and the Thorung La
Above the riverside settlement of Syange, the road is (or was at the time of writing) left behind, and the trail passes from terraced farmland into the gorge of the Upper Marsyangdi; and it’s three or four marvellous days’ walk up to Manang, mostly through Buddhist country. The trail crosses astonishing suspension footbridges and passes along dramatic walkways blasted into the rock, all the time climbing through successive climatic zones: temperate forest, coniferous forest, alpine meadows and finally the arid steppes of the rain shadow. The walk from Chame to MANANG – the high route via Upper Pisang avoids the bizarre stretch of unconnected road below – is spectacular and shouldn’t be rushed. The sight of the huge, glacier-dolloped Annapurnas towering almost 5000m above the valley will stay with you forever. Manang’s architecture, like that of all the older villages here, is strongly Tibetan.
The Thorung La (5416m) is iffy to impossible from late December till early March, while the lower parts of the trek are uncomfortably warm from April onwards. Snow can block the pass at any time of year, so be prepared to wait it out or go back down the way you came. If you’re going for it, you’ll need proper boots, gloves, very warm clothes and a three- or, better, four-season sleeping bag; visit Manang’s Himalayan Rescue Association post for information on weather conditions, AMS and suggested pacing of the route. It’s only six or seven hours to Thorung Phedi (4450m), the last cluster of lodges before the pass, but you should spread the ascent over at least two days – perhaps making day-trips from Manang. Thorung Phedi and the worryingly high Thorung High Camp (4925m) are grotty places where you’ll be woken up at 3am by trekkers who’ve been told (wrongly) that they have to clear the pass by 8am. Afternoons do get very windy, though, so an early start is advisable. The climb up the pass (where there’s sometimes a teashop in high season), and the knee-killing 1600m descent down the other side to Muktinath is a tough but exhilarating day.
Short side trips from Manang
Manang makes a fine base for exploratory day hikes around the Upper Marsyangdi valley – ideal for acclimatizing if you’re crossing the Thorung La, and worthy as destinations in their own right. The gompa at Manang, Bojo and Braga, all within half an hour of each other, are well worth visiting, and you could add on a short stroll from Manang to Gangapurna Lake and the fine viewpoint two hours above. Kicho Tal (4950m), an icy lake where bharal (blue sheep) have been sighted, makes a fine day hike.
The most enticing destination west of Manang is TILICHO (sometimes called Tilicho Tal or Tilicho Lake), not the highest lake in the world, as is often said, but beautiful and remarkable nonetheless. Getting there is two or three days’ hard work: paths are scree-ridden and dicey, routes may be hard to find and lodges are often shut out of season. Take advice and, if possible, a guide.
Two tricky hours west of Manang, Khangsar (3734m) is the highest permanent village in the Marsyangdi valley; it has a few lodges. From here the trail doesn’t follow the landslide-prone Marsyangdi valley, but a higher northern route passing Kharka (also known as Srikharka or Shreechaur; there’s a good guesthouse here) and a high col (4920m), descending to Tilicho Base Camp (4150m), some five hours from Khangsar. A second overnight at one of the two icy lodges at Tilicho Base Camp would make possible a steep day-trip the next day towards the astounding, often iced-over lake, Tilicho (4920m), a further three hours up (on snow, in parts, between November and May). There is currently just one very basic, seasonal teahouse (dorm room only) beside the lake, on the Manang side, but check if it’s open before you head up without camping gear. Most people visit the lake as a day’s round-trip from Tilicho Base Camp, but the hardy return to Khangsar (or even Manang) in one long day.
Tilicho is not a trip for the inexperienced; still less is the high, snowy, dangerous route through to Jomosom (or Marpha). The lakeshore can’t be circumnavigated (whatever maps may show), so the route demands either a roped-up crossing of the frozen lake (very roughly Nov or Dec–April, but make sure), or a high detour to the north across the Eastern Pass (5340m). After that you have to cross the watershed range, usually via the perilous MESOKANTO LA (5121m), sometimes called the Middle Pass (as there is a higher but supposedly easier one to the north). Only very strong walkers should expect to make it down to Jomosom (or even Thini) in one day from Tilicho Lake; ten hours would be fast, so it’s better to camp at one of the two sites along the way.
The following four treks have little in common with the well-serviced routes described above. You’ll typically find only Nepali food and lodging, or will need to camp – and possibly stay in people’s homes for at least some nights. If you’re not trekking with an agency, you’ll probably want to go with a guide.
Of course, there are scores of possibilities beyond the treks described here. The Khopra Lake trek, on the shoulder of Annapurna South above Ghorepani and Tadapani, could one day rival Poon Hill in popularity, with its stunning views towards Dhaulagiri, and high point at the small, sacred Khayar Lake (4880m). There’s no lodge at Khopra, but in 2012 a guesthouse was being built at Dharamdanda, halfway between Tadapani and Khopra Danda; you can also stay at Swanta, above Chitre. Increasing numbers of trekkers are exploring west of the Kali Gandaki towards the Dhaulagiri massif and the little-visited Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve; beyond that, of course, there’s Dolpo.
The Machhapuchhare trek
One of the newer routes in the region takes a loop north of Pokhara, towards the south faces of Mardi Himal and MACCHAPUCHHARE, with fine views of the Annapurna wall. The usual approach route heads up the upper valleys of the Seti Khola, leaving a spur road just above Hyangja (20min by taxi from Pokhara), and passing through lush, terraced farmland around the Gurung villages of Ghachok and Diprang (1440m), where there’s a community lodge and a natural hot spring nearby. A choice of steep paths lead up through forest (one passes Pipar Lake, prime pheasant habitat with a stunning view of Machapuchare, looming just to the north) to a high ridge dripping with rhododendrons and alive with birds, which you can follow up to the minor peak at Korchon (3682m), and potentially on up in the direction of Mardi Himal Base Camp (4120m). Most treks descend the ridge before dropping to the Mardi Khola at the village of Ribang. The trek takes five to seven days, and requires camping and supplies.
Mardi Himal trek
One ridge to the west of the Macchapuchhare trek is another fine camping route, the MARDI HIMAL TREK. The usual starting places are at Phedi or Kande, both on the road to Nayapul. From either, you climb on well-made trails to the villages of Pothana (1890m) and Bhichok Deurali (2100m). From here, you ascend the incredible ridge that drops south from Mardi Himal (5553m) between the Mardi and Modi Kholas. There are stunning views from the ridgetop, while rhododendron forests drop away on either side, and campsites appear every four hours or so: at Kokar (2550m), Low Camp (3050m) and High Camp (3900m). From High Camp, you can continue on up the ridge as high as you dare – it’s snowy from around November. From Low Camp, a good, steep trail drops east through the forest towards Sidhing, on the Macchapuchhare Model Trek.
The Royal trek
The so-called ROYAL TREK, an undemanding if somewhat unexciting amble through lush countryside, gets its name from Prince Charles’s visit in 1981. It was more enticing then, before the road was build east from Pokhara to Kalikasthan, and concrete houses started replacing traditional homes in places. It’s usually done over three (sometimes four) days, staying in homestay-style lodges. The first day follows gradual ups and downs as you head eastwards from Kalikasthan to Lipeyani; the second takes you up to ridgetop Chisopani (the last section is steep, but never scarily so), where there are fine views of the mountains; the third takes you back to Rupa Tal, from where you can pick up a bus to Pokhara.
The Siklis trek
The SIKLIS TREK probes an uncrowded corner of the Annapurna Conservation Area under the shadows of Lamjung Himal and Annapurnas II and IV – though you’ll see more terraced fields than mountains and forests. The usual itinerary takes about a week, starting at Begnas Tal and heading north to Kalikasthan (first night) then following the river’s west bank to Taprang (second night) and on up to well-preserved Siklis (1980m), Nepal’s biggest Gurung village. The fourth day is hard work: you strike westwards over the thickly forested ridge that separates the Madi and Seti drainages to Tara Hill, where a small teahouse offers incredible views of Macchapuchhare; you then descend via Ghalekharka and the Sardikhola to the Seti Khola, returning towards Hyangja via Ghachok. Many other variations are possible, including making a detour up the Seti Nadi from Ghachok to the hot springs at Diprang. It’s now possible to make this trek without camping or staying in local homes, but the lodges are still pretty basic.
There’s only one trek of note in the region east of the Annapurnas and north of Gorkha: the MANASLU CIRCUIT. It’s some trek, however, passing through relatively unspoiled and hugely varied countryside, from rice terraces to spare Tibetan villages, and from rich forest to a 5100m pass. It takes two weeks (13–18 days) to walk the challenging route, and it’s well worth considering if you were thinking of doing the Annapurna Circuit and were put off by the new road or the increased commercialization.
It is now possible to trek the Manaslu Circuit by staying in lodges, without taking camping equipment, but the facilities are, for the most part, quite basic. Things are changing fast (w manaslucircuittrek.com is a good place to seek traveller reports and updates), but this is still daal bhaat and shared dormitories territory.
The trek traditionally starts in Gorkha, passing right next to the royal palace and then through some very scenic and culturally rich country. Many people now shave off the first three days or so, however, by beginning at Arughat. Direct buses run from Kathmandu to Arughat (2 daily; 7hr), or you can get off the Prithvi Highway between Kathmandu and Pokhara at Malekhu, and catch frequent local buses or jeeps from there up the paved road to Dhading, a busy administrative centre, and then on up the rough road that continues to Arughat (and indeed beyond, as far as Arkhet or Sozti Khola).
The Manaslu Circuit route
From Arughat (530m), the first eight days or so climb steadily up the wooded, peaceful Burhi Gandaki valley. You’re passing through deep Gurung country, where local women wear heavy gold jewellery, and working men carry the distinctive Gurung bhangro, a heavy, cream-coloured rough woollen cloak which is cross-tied around the waist and shoulders and doubles as a bag.
After three or, more likely, four days, you pass into the Manaslu Conservation Area at Jagat (1340m), where there’s a checkpost, and the scenery becomes ever more spectacular. (A fascinating side trip would be east of Philim up to the stunning, forested and intensely Buddhist Tsum valley, which penetrates behind the 7000m peaks of Ganesh Himal.) Beyond Deng (1800m), one long or two short days above Jagat, the valley starts to turn west and you enter the high, strongly Tibetan-flavoured country of Nupri; it’s three or, more sensibly, four days up through increasingly lofty, Buddhist country to the town of Samdo (3870m). It’s worth taking your time to acclimatize, and Samdo, with its cluster of relatively comfortable lodges, and possibility of a side trip towards the Lajyung La (which leads into Tibet), is a good place to take a rest day. If need be, porters can be hired here – at a price.
It’s inadvisable, on acclimatization grounds as well as those of fatigue, to try to do one huge, 10hr day from Samdo all the way over the pass of the Larkya La (5135m) and down to the lodges at Bimtang (3720m). The only alternative, if you’re not camping, is the single lodge at Larkye La Phedi, also known as Larkye Dharamsala (4470m), three hours above Samdo; at the time of writing, however, there was a question over its future, as it was built illegally. The Larkya La itself, which clings to the very shoulder of Manaslu, takes four to five hours to ascend from Larkya Phedi, and can be windy and dangerous; in snowy conditions, which are common (and should be expected from November), guides should use a rope for the steepest hour or two of the descent. The views are sensational, even if they don’t take in an 8000m peak – only Annapurna II, at a shade over 7900m.
The descent can be very fast: two to three steep days down the Dudh Khola to the Marsyangdi valley. At Dharapani (1860m), you enter the ACAP zone (permit needed) and relative civilization. You meet the road at Syange, where jeeps come up from Besisahar, but it might be preferable to walk to Bhulbhule.
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