Manaslu Circuit – our Hairy Yak Adventure!
Updated: Dec 8, 2019
This is the story of our Manaslu Circuit trek starting late September 2019 – our second trip to Nepal and our first major trek. It was an amazing adventure with incredible landscapes and an epic pass to cross. I hope our story and the many beautiful photos we managed to take inspire you to follow in our footsteps!
Manaslu is the eighth highest mountain in the world at 8,163m and this trek which circles the mountain, is now one of the classic treks of Nepal. It passes through the Manaslu Conservation area, a restricted region needing special permits and a guide, and is much less well known and quieter than the Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit treks which attract tens of thousands of trekkers each year. Many say it is how Annapurna Circuit was 10 or 20 years ago, before the roads were built that changed that trek so significantly.
The trek takes you through the beautiful gorge of the Budhi Gandaki River, into the high mountains of the Manaslu Himal and close to the Tibetan border which is evident in the Buddhist culture of higher villages of the route. It’s a fairly challenging trek because of the altitude of the high pass it crosses, Larkya La at 5,106m, but it is not technically difficult – and the number of days (typically 11 to 14) and the hours of walking each day can be easily adjusted depending on your level of fitness and time. We are not mountaineers but love walking in mountains and this was a perfect challenge for us!
We had 21 days to spend trekking and wanted to follow our Manaslu trek with a trek through Nar Phu Valley (see our blog about that here) so were following a shorter itinerary with longer days to allow time for Nar Phu. We started the trek the last week in September which was early in the season, risking some rain from the end of the monsoon season, but also benefitting from very quiet trails and a verdant landscape.
Day 1 – Kathmandu to Soti Khola
Time: 7hrs(driving) ~138km.
Soti Khola: Altitude 740m, Coordinates: 28.134033, 84.854469
Our journey started at the bus station in Kathmandu, catching an early tourist bus to Arughat. The 7hr journey starts along the main Prithvi Highway route towards Pokhara. This overused road is not the most pleasant start to an off-the-beaten path trek (!) – a continuous traffic jam of lorries belching exhaust fumes - but our anticipation and the Nepali music videos distracted us until we left the highway at Dhading bridge near Benighat and ascended the dusty road into Arughat. Some trekkers start walking from here but its highly recommended to take a local bus from Arughat to Soti Khola – the last practical point on the rough track for vehicles to reach. The bus journey was a real cultural experience packed with locals and the narrow track a little hair raising at times (in the spirit of our HYA). It’s amazing that buses don’t break down more than they do given the terrain (we only passed one broken down bus) and its clear the drivers (that survive) have real skill!
Arriving at Soti Khola we soon realised one of the many advantages of a good guide. Ramesh – our guide for the trek - had booked ahead and secured us the best room with ensuite shower and a view (and the roar) of the Budhi Gandaki river that we would follow up stream to its start near the high Larkya La Pass that we would reach after nine days walking!
For those new to tea-house trekking its important to have the right expectations before you book 😊. Tea-houses are a wonderful part of the Nepali trekking experience but they are not luxurious! Your guide will help you find the best tea-houses with clean rooms and good food, but they provide basic comforts. There is no heating other than a stove in the dining room and rarely any hot water, and although blankets and pillows may be provided, a sleeping bag and travel pillow are very advisable. You will quickly get used to managing to wash without a shower - at altitude it gets cold at night as soon as the sun goes down and cold showers are less appealing anyway!
Day 2 – Soti Khola to Machha Khola
Time: 4hrs. Distance: ~14km. Ascent: 130m.
Machha Khola: Altitude 869m, Coordinates: 28.229092, 84.873842
We set off at 7.30am after a breakfast of apple pancake and Tibetan bread – a regular staple of our trek. Sushil, our porter tied our rucksacks together with his own and hefted them onto his back, supported using the headstrap that is normal for porters and locals carrying heavy weights - Ramesh assured us that he was strong and the weight (less than 10kg each) was no problem but I remained in awe throughout the trek that he managed it while I puffed and panted without a back-pack.
The valley is initially broad with lush green vegetation and in the early morning wisps of cloud clung to the hillside making the landscape especially atmospheric.
Streams from the surrounding hillsides dropped over sheer cliffs in spectacular waterfalls.
The rough road continues for the initial stretch towards Jagat but it was vehicle free - there was little sign of recent building or maintenance and it was blocked by a number of recent landslides and rock-falls …
Supplies to all the villages up the valley are brought in by donkey (or helicopter!) so they were the main hazard on the trail rather than vehicles. We were warned to keep out of the way of the donkey trains (they don’t stop!) and always on the mountain side not on the side of the steep drop - tourists have been killed by being pushed off trails!
It was planned as an easy first day’s trek and after an early lunch at a tea-house near Lapubesi, we crossed our first suspension bridge for the last hour’s walk up to Machha Khola.
Once we found our room the tea-house owner kindly took us for a short hike through the village and crossing the river, over to hot springs on the far side of the river - a rather alarming path across a across a recent landslide. There are obviously a number of these hot springs in the area – Tatopani (meaning hot springs) is quite close by - and the villagers have built communal baths which fill from the steaming water.
It was the end of the monsoon season and the river was in full flood.
Day 2 –Machha Khola to Jagat
Time: 6hrs. Distance: ~22km. Ascent: 570m.
Jagat: Altitude 1400m, Coordinates: 28.35037, 84.89591
Overnight it had rained heavily – we were catching the end of the monsoon season still - but dry as we set off at 7.15am. The trail continued along the rough road for a couple of hours, again crossing recent landslides including some precarious rocks balancing above us!
The river gorge becomes narrow and deep in places with the path carved into the hillside.
We stopped for lunch at a pleasant teahouse near Dobhan, sitting outside in brief sunshine - noodle soup and fried potatoes.
Continuing along on the right of the river, the gorge widened and the path joined a recently built cantilever walkway.
The cliffs are beautifully clothed in trees and grasses which thrive in the moist climate.
The trail is up and down and our various navigation devices and maps all told us different statistics throughout the trek– Nepalis tend to measure in time rather than distance which makes sense given the terrain is so variable. I was new to using trekking poles but they proved to be hugely useful – great for balance (rock hopping in mud and stream crossing especially) and reducing the wear on knees going down but also helping to set a steady rhythm. But still nice to have an occasional rest to admire the view!
We reached Jagat mid-afternoon, a pretty village with paved streets, and another nice teahouse. After unpacking and a lemon ginger tea (a new favourite!) we walked to a scenic viewpoint at a spectacular suspension bridge crossing 3 waterfalls – as well as beautiful the waterfalls drove a micro-hydro power station which provides electricity to Jagat and the surrounding villages (see more about how micro-hydro power has transformed the lives of people in rural Nepal).
Day 3 –Jagat to Deng
Time: 7hrs. Distance: ~20km. Ascent: 460m.
Deng: Altitude 1860m, Coordinates: 28.478947, 84.866975
It rained heavily overnight and it was a misty and damp start as we set off after breakfast.