There are four circuits in Nepal that I have put on my ‘must do’ list – and to ‘must do’ soon as there is significant development of roads in most of these areas. The first was the Upper Mustang which was wonderful and I visited in October 2022. The second is the Manaslu circuit – which I have just almost completed. And hopefully I will visit the Dolpa and Kachenjunga in the next few years.
I decided to extend the Manaslu circuit by also doing a tour up the Tsum valley. And I significantly altered the recommended trek to get more walking in most days at lower altitude (more or less copying the Manaslu trail race itinerary). In the end, the weather was against me, with temperature on the Larke La pass being sub 10-15 degrees celcius, and I did not have the gear for that weather, so I turned around at Dharamsala. However, I did manage to get 250k of good hiking in during 9 proper days of walking.
The trail overall MAP
Day 1 getting to the trail head at Tatopani and getting a head start walking to Seleri – 11km, 665m ascent, 250m descent
Manaslu is one of the only circuits which is ‘easily’ accessible from Kathmandu by jeep. It was a 7 hour bumpy ride from town to the trail head just after Machhakhola. It is possible to take a public bus, but those days are behind me. We left at 6am, had espresso at 7am on the outskirts of Kathmandu (it takes a while to get out of town), and then had Dahl Baht at Soti Khola. We arrived at Tatopani around 1pm and started walking from there.
The ‘road’ used to stop at Soti Khola, and then Machhakhola, but the ‘road’ these days is mostly built up to Philim. In the earthquake, parts of the road have been destroyed, so brave vehicles can only get to Jagat. And on the day we started walking the army was blasting explosives at Dhoban so we had to get out 10k before Jagat to walk. It was a quiet stroll, no tourists, as it was late in the day, and while the views were nice, the road was dusty and rocky and not ideal to walk on.
We went a few km past Jagat to Saleri to a nice guesthouse, and had an early dinner of omelette and chapatis and an early night.
Day 2 – From Saleri to Chumling in the Tsum Valley via Philim and Lokpa – 23.4km, 7 hours, 1730m ascent, 730m descent
I was very much looking forward to a proper day hiking, so we left 6.30am, and I had my breakfast and lunch (omelettes and chapatis) packed in my bag, as well as half a thermos of coffee. The trail up until Philim was largely the gravel road, and it was very quiet until we got there. We arrived around 8 ish and the normal trekking crowd were rousing themselves to leave. We had to stop for 15 minutes for our permit registration, but quickly caught up the trekkers who had stopped in the next village for a break (after walking 2km….. the guides really don’t think westerners are that fit, or perhaps this group weren’t).
After Philim we were now on proper trail, albeit largely pretty well benched trails which were wide enough to accommodate the mules who transport every single thing required up the valley. The mules were not particularly well treated, and were tough to pass. I never met a local or a trekker who did overtake them, but I did as they annoyed me to walk slowly behind them (plus I hated watching the mule guys throw rocks at the mules).
At the junction of the Manaslu valley, I went right to head up the Tsum valley, and fortunately most of the mules went left to follow the Manaslu circuit. I arrived in Lokpa, a tiny settlement at 10.30am, and ended up waiting 45 minutes for the guide, who wasn’t in peak fitness. We had a coffee, and then I agreed to meet the guide in Chumling, which was the furthest he was willing to walk that day.
It took me 2.5 hours to arrive in Chumling, and the trail was interesting with a lot of ups and downs to avoid landslide areas. The amusing part of the trail was a series of ‘cantilevered’ bridges which were literally hanging off the side of the cliff with sheer drops to the river below. I was reassured by the fact that the mules walked this trail every day, so if the structures could take the weight of the mules, they should be able to take my weight. It turns out I was lucky on the way in – as you can’t quite see how badly some of these bridges had been damaged in recent rockfall, but as you will see from the photos on the Day 5 entry, there was bugger all holding those bridges up when you viewed them from the Tsum valley side. Oh well, I made it across. I also managed to successfully move some mules on the final suspension bridge before Chumling. An annoying mule driver had stopped for tea but sent his mules across the bridge nonetheless. The problem was they were blocking the last 20m of the suspension bridge. It turns out it is quite hard to squish yourself between a mule and the side of a suspension bridge – the buggers are quite unyielding. I eventually took my pack off, breathed in, and squished sideways between the mules and the wire support on the side of the bridge, taking a few headbutts as I went. It was worth it, as I was very keen for a cup of tea at the final destination of Chumling.
I arrived in Chumling and found the lovely Tashi Dalek hotel (easily my favourite of the accommodation and food for the whole trek), and we were worried when the guide took a whole extra 90 minutes to arrive. The hotel owner was about to send out a search party. I had a lovely hot bucket of water to wash with and then wandered around the village. It feels properly remote up here – and I didn’t seen any tourists on the way up the trail. I had an excellent dinner of dhindo (buckwheat mush), nettle soup and boiled eggs. Dinner was quiet with only two other trekkers in the lodge – a young couple on a belated honeymoon. Their guide was hilarious and was making tiktok videos with his gopro.
Day 3 – From Chumling up to Mu Gompa at 3700m (via Chekempar and Nile) at the end of the Tsum valley and back to Nile 35km, 1850m of ascent, 9 hours, 34km, 850m descent
An early start with buckwheat pancakes and omelettes to go….. The trail was very quiet for the first 6km to the small settlement of Domje, and then the mules started. From Domje there was a wonderful steep benched trail in the sun up to a lovely high valley which starts with the village at Chekampar. I was accompanied by the mules up the trail, and it was actually quite fun as these mule drivers were friendly and were surprised I was walking as fast as the mules. As we crested the pass into the high valley, we could tell they had had a decent dump of snow the previous evening, though in the bright morning sun, it was already melting. I stopped at Chekempar to have some coffee from the thermos and my breakfast, and ignored the young kids who were asking me for chocolate.
The next few hours were a leisurely stroll through villages in a wide open valley flanked by stupendous peaks. I arrived at the village of Nile around 12.30 and found the pretty grotty guesthouse which was to be home for the evening and left my pack there.
I had lunch by the river and then hiked onwards to mu gompa – the last place tourists are allowed to walk in the valley, as it is quite close to the Tibetan border. It was only a 10km round trip, but the last 1/2km kicked my arse, with a steep 200m climb up to the gompa at 3700m. I had started the day at 2200m so was feeling the lack of oxygen. I said hello to the monks and had a quick look around, and the weather was turning, so I put three layers on, plus hat and gloves and trotted back down to Nile (where the guide had eventually arrived). I amused myself by singing to the Yaks on the way down – there were lots of them, and no humans thankfully to hear my tunelessness.
The guesthouse kitchen was crowded and warm with an odorous yak dung fire and three groups of hikers who had joined up into one bigger group to feed. It was pretty filthy, but remarkable to see how much food the boss could turn out from a wood fire with two burners on top and no running water.
I had a rough night sleep, which was probably a combination of the cold and the altitude and the hard mattress. But it was worth it, as this was probably the best days hiking of the trip – i love a long hard day in the hills with epic views, sun shine and very few people. (note the sunshine was slightly problematic as I neglected to put sunscreen on the back of my knees and they blistered a few days later – oooops).
Day 4 Meander back down the valley to Chumling – 23km , 460 up, 1330 down, 5.5 hours
Today was an easy day, just returning to Chumling. So we slept in until 6.30 :-). On the way back down we meandered, visiting a monastery in Chule and also in Lamagaun. We stopped in Chekempar as I was tempted by a sign offering fresh coffee (it was ok but weak). And then we stopped again for tea and a gossip with some Czech trekkers in Domje and played with the two Tibetan mastifs which their guide had bought on the trek. Tibetan mastifs are gorgeous and excellent guard dogs – the guide had paid c. $40 for each dog, and was carrying them in his pack down the mountain.
We arrived back at the Tashi Dalek lodge at 1.30 just before the rain started. I treated myself to cheese momos and another bucket of hot water for a wash (as it turned out my last for the circuit, as it got too damn cold to get naked). It was like coming home. I read my book and the newspapers (quite good wifi up here), and then had an excellent dinner of buckwheat pancakes dahl soup and boiled eggs. They definitely had the best food of the circuit.
Day 5 From Chumling back to the main circuit at Bhi Pedi – 25k 1200m of ascent, 1500m of descent down, 6 hours
Another early start at 6.30am, though the guide had told me he wasn’t prepared to walk further than Bhi Pedi, so I would have to stop there for the evening. Oh well. The return to Lokpa was nice and energetic, and good practice for walking down steep stairs. The shite cantilevered bridges were a lot more vomit inducing from this side (see pictures below). Blech. If I hadn’t already crossed them, I am not sure if I would have been able to get myself over them. Oh well, I breathed in and went for it.
I arrived at lokpa after 2.5 hours of hiking just as the 8-10 tourists from Lokpa were starting their hiking day. The guides always look confused as they ask me where I started from. I really don’t understand why everyone doesn’t start hiking at 6.30 am as it is the best part of the day, but it is probably better for as it keeps the trails nice and quiet.
Shortly after Lokpa I was back on the main Manaslu circuit trail where all signs pointed to Larke Pass. And there was a lot of mule traffic, so i really started honing my overtaking skills and my mule whispering (I feel like I calm them when I talk to them, though I don’t think they like my singing). I meandered through Nyak Phedi and Pewa and arrived at Deng just after noon. At Deng the valley narrows and the wind howls down the Buri Gandaki river. I had a tea, and was amused by the site of some local hikers who were in various states of disrepair on the guesthouse terrace – all pretty much lying prone with their feet in the air and moaning. Unlike the foreigners, the locals don’t need to pay for a guide, and I was quite impressed to see the 5 of them out hiking (it isn’t a very Nepali thing to do for leisure).
As I was finishing my tea, I heard the sounds of mule bells, and figured the 150 mules I had overtaken on the way up the valley were about to go past, so I hustled my butt and got back on the trail ahead of them. Another hour later I arrived at the one shack metropolis of Bhi Phedi. A lovely Nepali family run guesthouse – the Singla guesthouse was more of a shack with no insulation, and the dining room was jutted out over the cliff with a fierce draft coming in. But the nice man made excellent dahl baht and spring rolls, and their son amused me by basically sitting next to me for a couple of hours and playing me jumanji videos on his mums phone. He was pretty snotty, but did add to the warmth. I read my book in my room (amused by the fact I could see through the gaps to both the adjacent rooms and the rooms downstairs), staying warm in my sleeping bag until dinner. Dinner was delicious and I met a nice german couple who were just doing the circuit and were worried (appropriately) about the weather on the pass, which was forecast for minus 15 degrees. Ouch. Another early night, always an easy decision when your sleeping bag is the warmest place to hang out (tip for trekkers – I always ask for extra blankets, not to put on the sleeping bag – which would squish the down and ruin the insulation, but to put on the mattress to make it softer and warmer)
Day 6 from Bhi Pedi to lho at 3200m, 25k and 1800m of climbing, 600m descent 7 hours
Another lovely dawn departure, and I didn’t see a soul on the undulating trail between Bhi Phedi and Ghap, just stunning views of the river in the deep gorge. After Ghap, things got a little more spicy as the mule trains rest at Ghap for the evening, so it was a little busy on the trail.
Getting up to Namrung was a nice steep grunt, but I was motivated by a few signs promising an espresso machine and Illy coffee at the lodge. It was a huge disappointment to arrive, see the machine through the window, and not be able to find a single person in the hotel for 20 minutes. And another disappointment on the other side of Namrung to find the fresh grind coffee shop also closed. (`And yes I recognise these are deeply first world disappointments). The trail was fine though with some pretty slippy eroded bits on landslide zones, but I normally felt fine crossing them, secure in the knowledge that the mules seem to make it fine.
From Namrung I had intended to make a detour to the monastery at Hinang, but the valley was full of cloud and rain, so I kept going to Lho enjoying the meandering trail. I got to Lho at 2pm, checked all the hotels and decided to stay at the Manaslu guesthouse (had the cleanest rooms and the warmest dining room). It also ended up having four other guests (quite busy! – a swiss couple and a dutch couple). I had lunch of dahl and chapatis and a huge pot of masala tea and chatted to the dutch doctor. Then the fire was lit, so we sat around and I a yummy dinner of Ting Momo (a bit like Bao buns), more tea and then an early night
Day 7 – easy day to Samagaon at 3500m, 14.5km, 5 hours 930m ascent, 580m descent
Another early start with an apple pancake/cheese omelette combo to go. I had planned a detour en route to Samagaon to visit Pungyen Gompa which is at 4200m. The trail diverted from the main circuit at Shyala. All was well for the first 300m and then the trail disappeared under snow. I probably made 400m of ascent, and a few km headway, before the deep snow, lack of traffic and lack of confidence that the weather wouldnt’ come in turned me back. Pungyen is uninhabited and I was by myself, so if I had fallen or had an issue I would have been in trouble (especially in the freezing temperatures).
Oh well, I retraced my steps down the hill and wandered up to Samagaon. ‘Sama’ as it is affectionately known is a pretty big settlement, with both the circuit traffic passing through, and also it is the supply town for Manaslu Base Camp. We were staying at a fairly grotty hotel – the Mt Manaslu – which is apparently the best in town. To be fair, the bulk of the grot was due to the overflowing loos which were created by the burst pipes from the freezing weather. I was also pretty itchy after sleeping on the sheets. On the upside, I picked the most insulated room, and the cook actually turned out pretty good food (and I had stopped over-thinking the hygiene standards).
I had some extra energy, and it was blimmen freezing, so I headed up to Birendra lake, which was lovely even if the views of the peaks were obscured by the clouds. I managed to get back to the hotel before the rain came in. I had some veg curry and then retreated to my room to get in my sleeping bag and stay warm (the dining room during the day was minus 2).
I resurfaced at 6pm, as the fire was going by then. And said good evening to all of the residents of the guesthouse in Lho from the previous evening. We sat roasting ourselves around the fire and contemplating the wisdom of trying to get over the pass in this weather. The poor swiss couple had been told they didn’t need sleeping bags, so they were already struggling with the weather. The dutch couple were new to trekking but pretty upbeat. All four of them decided they would give the pass a crack, and were amused that I probably wouldn’t (as i was definitely the strongest hiker…., but that is probably why I am now sage enough to make good trail decisions).
Day 8 – from Samagaon to near Dharamsala (4360m) and back, 23.4km, 6 hours, 930m ascent and descent
I had pretty much decided the weather wasn’t going to cooperate with me crossing the Larke La pass at 5200m, especially with the gear I had with me. But I did want to walk up to see the view of Mt Manaslu from near Dharamsala (which is the last accommodation before crossing the Larke La pass). I was up at 5.30am and it was fiercely cold even at 3500m. The cold was good incentive to walk very fast. I got to Samdo after 8km as a few trekkers were leaving to head to Dharamsala (this route normally takes people two days to go up for acclimatisation), and overtook them on the route up. The sky was clear as I left Samagaun, but the clouds had started to obscure the peaks from 9am onwards. However it was still a little warm with the sun, and the trail was free from snow, so it was a nice walk. I made it to 4360m and then decided I had done 12km, and should probably turn around.
I got back to Samagaun in time for a robust lunch of veg pizza (it was quite good), and then retreated into my sleeping bag for the afternoon with all my clothes on, my down jacket hood on and zipped up around my face, as that was the warmest place to be. I was the only guest in the lodge that night, but was grateful to the crew who still lit the fire for me at 5.30pm. That fire was wonderful, and i had a lovely dinner of soup and pancake, until the fire cooled down at 7pm and went back to bed. Bugger me it is freezing, and I am grateful I wasn’t sleeping higher up.
Day 9 – descending down to Ghap in the snow – 6.5 hours, 25km, 540m ascent, 1860m descent
I woke up in Samagaon to a 15cm snow dump, which definitely reinforced the wisdom of my decision to walk down the hill. Walking out entailed a 78 km back track, or an extra 38km hiking versus completing the circuit – but it was a no brainer in these weather conditions versus traversing a high, potentially snow blocked, pass. I popped my microspikes on, and we walked through the snow for about 10km to Lhi at 3000m where the snow and the snow fall stopped – I was grateful I had the spikes.
We kept meandering until Ghap, as the wind and rain was forecast for the afternoon, and we made it to the Nubri Ghap Lama Guesthouse around 2pm just before the rains. I re-met the trekkers from the Tsum valley on the way down, and they were all surprised by the retreat – though they will likely be able to get over the pass as the weather forecast for 5 days out was much better.
I was the only foreigner in the guesthouse that night, but was joined by 6 young monks who had finished a meditation course. They were quite sweet company. The guesthouse was basic, with gaping holes in the planks in the wall, but fortunately it was much warmer at 2200m.
Day 10 walk out to Jagat – 30km, 7 hours, 1200m ascent, 1900m descent.
It was a long day descending, so we headed out at 6.15am. I was delighted that there was still quite a lot of climbing on the day – unrelenting descent is tough on the knees, so the uphill is a nice diversion. The first couple of hours were lovely and quiet with rolling trail alongside the spectacular gorge with the Buri Ghandaki at the bottom.
I have started getting hiker hungry so for the first time I actually ate my breakfast at 6am, and was starving by the time I hit Nyak Phedi around 10.30am. The flies were offputting though so I kept walking until I had done 22km of the day and stopped for an omelette and tibetan bread (deep fried chapati) at ElekBhatti after being held up multiple times with mule trains coming in my direction on narrow ledges. After Elekbhatti, I was passing fresh trekkers who were coming into the circuit, and they oddly smelt quite perfumed. By this time I was not smelling good, so kept my arms quite tight to my sides when passing.
The last 6km from Philim were crap, walking along the road being built with a lot of wind blowing in my face and too much dust. I arrived at Jagat around 3pm and investigated the hotels – all varying degrees of grot. I quite liked the boss lady at the Manaslu Shanti hotel and she promised me a hot shower ($2), good wifi, and some fruit. So I enjoyed her hospitality with the peeling pink paint and concrete and some of the hardest mattresses of the circuit. But Ranjana made an excellent cheese and veg spring roll, and the hot shower in a filthy cubicle was EPIC.
We had hoped the jeep could pick us up in Jagat, but the driver called and said it was too hard (he was a Kathmandu driver versus a local one – as the locals can get to Jagat), so we got a bonus 8km early the next morning walking out to Dobhan, but it only took an hour and a half. Then a bumpy 7 hour jeep ride back to Kathmandu where I had a lovely few relaxing days in my favourite Nepalese hotel having massages, eating steak and sleeping in nice sheets.
Notes on the tour
Guide and porters – I didn’t use a porter, most people did. I didn’t need one, I only had about 10kg with water. If you are taking a porter it is normal (not really optional) to tip $7-10 per day. You should also make sure the porters food is being paid for by their agency. Their wage is 2000 rupees per day (about $15), and as they climb, their two daily meals will cost 600-1000 rupees per day which is a big chunk of their wages if the agency doesn’t cover it. Guides are mandatory in the Manaslu (and about to be mandatory for all trekking in Nepal). They get paid between $20-80 per day by their agencies, and the would also expect $15 tip per day (from the whole group or individual, tip is per day per guide). I organised through Neer and Ram at Hidden Trails, who also organise the Mustang and Manaslu trail races.
Gear – Weather can be unpredictable – take warm gear. I had gear which would have kept me warm hiking at zero degrees. I did not have gear that would have kept me warm moving slowly at the minus 15 degrees forecast on the Larke La pass. I was warm enough in the tea houses as I had an excellent sleeping bag and a good down jacket and I slept in all my clothes. Also note that you should remember that you cannot hike in your down jacket if it is proper down. Once it gets wet (from sweat), it loses all of its insulation qualities. Your down jacket should be reserved for when you stop and you need to warm up. (I was surprised how many trekkers were wearing all of their gear while moving – it is dangerous as you have nothing to put on when you inevitably cool down when you stop, especially if you have sweated in your down jacket and gotten it wet). Also take good boots or microspikes for snow. I had one pole which was also helpful.
Tea houses – Note these are very very basic. Most of the ones we stayed in had no insulation and holes in the walls (or gaps between planks). Do not be suckered into taking the room with the big windows and the views – those windows will let the freezing cold in at 4am when it is minus 5. Pick the warmest room – normally downstairs, and ideally with stone or brick walls. Don’t expect hot showers as you go up in altitude, though a bucket of hot water is normally available for a fee. On my trip all of us were too cold to even consider taking our clothes off to wash even in hot water once we got above 3000m
Connectivity – Wifi is available most places, and if you bought the NTC sim (the government network) versus the Ncell sim at the airport, you can get data and signal in quite a lot of the valley all they way up to Samagaon. Wifi is 100 rupees in Jagat and 500 rupees in Samagaon, and on a sliding scale in between based on altitude (and cost to provide).
Route – I would not recommend starting hiking before Machhakhola… you will be walking along a muddy road with a lot of jeep dust up your nose. Apparently the tour agents like to start as low down the valley as possible (Arughat or Soti Khola), even if it means 2-3 days of road walking, as it means they get more work. Hmmmmm. I would take a jeep to Jagat which is the furthest you can currently get, and you will still end up walking on a half built road to Philim (6km further on). The nice trekking starts on a normal hiking path from Philim. Note also that the jeep road can pick you up from Dharapani, so there is no need to trek further than that
I would also recommend working out what distances you want to walk each day. Most of the tours walk very short distances, they start late (at 8), have a long lunch, and finish early. I don’t really see the point as the tea houses are not luxurious places to hang out (half the time they are freezing and I had to spend the afternoon in my sleeping bag until the fire was lit at dinner time in the dining room). Starting late also means you miss the best bit of the day. Most fit trekkers can easily do 20km per day rather than 10km, at least until you get to 3500m. The companies will edit the itinerary around you, if you are clear with them what you want.
Mules – once you get on the normal trekking trail the mules are a problem if you want to maintain a good pace. All the trekkers I saw let the mules overtake them. I didn’t – they walked too slowly – so I would routinely overtake 100-150 mules every day. However the guide counselled against overtaking. Oh well. I avoided getting kicked or bitten, though I did get shoved a couple of times. My advice is to overtake on the hill side (not on the steep drop off side of the trail). And they are much easier to overtake in villages (when you can walk up the other side of the prayer wall, or go around them when the stop for a drink). And be careful when they swish their tales or shake their heads. They are pissed off so be careful and make no sudden moves. Note also mules come with a distinctive pee and poo……, its quite memorable and odorous. On the bright side if you are at a fork in a junction and are unsure which is the main trail, it is always easy to figure out – just choose the path with the fresh mule crap. Everything north of Jagat arrives on a mule, so expect to see lots of them, and it is depressing watching the mule drivers throw rocks at the mules and whack them to make them go faster.
Food – The food is pretty dire. I don’t eat the meat while trekking as it is carried up on mules and not refrigerated. So the options are dal baht (watery dahl soup, veg curry (normally potatoes), rice and pickle) or a million variations of rice, pasta, pancakes with egg, cheese or veg. And the veg variety gets sparse as you climb. I would recommend taking some hiking meals to rehydrate and also carry some fruit. I also avoided stopping for lunch, as everything is made to order and can take an hour or more to make. I would order a double breakfast of omelettes and chapatis (or pancakes) and roll them up into burritos and eat them later in the day. I also always ordered a pot of coffee in the morning and took half with me in the thermos. This meant I could stop and eat breakfast and lunch when I was hungry. I didn’t carry any snacks or chocolate, mostly as I am trying to stop eating so much junk and processed food, but I didn’t miss the lack of snacks. Three meals a day was fine. By the time I came back, I was very sick of eggs (I was eating 4-6 per day to get some protein in). I also got some protein from drinking a litre of masala tea (a small pot) every afternoon and a litre of milk coffee every morning.
Kathmandu, March 2023