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.
We passed through the picturesque villages of Salleri and Philim, their village entrances marked by chorten like gates known as Kani and the paved paths lined with well cultivated fields of vegetables and other crops (buckwheat, millet and maize).
As it started to rain, we stopped for lunch in the small hamlet of Chisopani, going for the high carb options – veg fried rice and chowmein as it was still a fair distance to Deng and an energy boost was needed!
The food in most teahouses is healthy and nutritious but it’s a good option to go vegetarian as there is little refrigeration and meat is definitely more risky. We managed our whole trek without stomach problems – though we also lost weight from the healthy lifestyle and exercise – an added bonus! Dhal bhat of course is the national dish (lentil soup with rice and curried vegetables) and so an essential part of the experience - its all the guides and porters eat during the trek - but we liked a bit more variety and so usually shared 2 or 3 items from the menu to make sure we were regaining the calories we were burning.
The rain eased as we set-off after lunch but rucksack covers were a sensible precaution.
As the gorge deepened, we climbed higher above the river…
.. and back down. It is an incredibly beautiful valley!
We arrived at Deng mid-afternoon just as the rain was starting again. As you get higher teahouses get more basic and although this one was clean it was our introduction to shared/outside loos which would be the norm from then on.
Drying clothes is one of the challenges of a trek like this. Rucksack liners are an essential to avoid everything getting damp in these conditions – our porter covered our rucksacks in plastic which helped too. We had packed as light as we could so with limited changes of clothes and a plan to wash things as we went – we had a ‘Go Travel’ pegless washing line which was a great buy as we strung it up from nails or curtain poles above our beds at every tea-house. Arriving late afternoon doesn’t give much opportunity for drying time especially with a lack of sun but things did dry a little overnight. Everyone has the same problem and underwear dangling from the outside of rucksacks as soon as the sun comes out is normal!
Day 5 –Deng To Namrung
Time: 7hrs. Distance: ~19.5km. Ascent: 780m.
Namrung: Altitude 2,640m, Coordinates: 28.5345694,84.7881472
It had rained heavily again overnight and this time we set off in light drizzle. It was to be a wet day but while in the dramatic gorge we were not missing mountain views and the rain somehow enhanced the scenery and the beautiful vegetation.
The cliffs were a tapestry of gold, black and green...
For keen a gardener like me one of the joys of the trek was seeing many of our garden plants in their natural habitat. The Nepal Himalayas are known for the beautiful spring flowers, particularly the national flower, the Rhododendron (Lali Guras in Nepali) but I was amazed in early autumn how many wild flowers we saw in bloom, and the native grasses, ferns, bamboos and shrubs were at their best after the monsoon season.
Rock hopping along muddy paths, we reached Gap after a couple of hours and stopped in a pretty pine cabin tea-house for lunch.
The rain continued through the afternoon – it was our wettest day of the trek and we were grateful to reach Namrung mid-afternoon. A chance for a shower (Nepali ‘hot’ – a lack of sun meant the solar hot water only managed to take the edge off the cold) and then to dry off and warm up with a hot lemon and thermals. Our tea-house had very pleasant ‘cottage- style’ wooden huts and was popular with trekkers having wifi and electricity but there is a resort hotel here if you fancy a bit of luxury (international prices!).
Day 6 –Namrung to Samaghaun
Time: 7hrs. Distance: ~17.5km. Ascent: 860m.
Samaguan: Altitude 3,500m, Coordinates: 28.585950, 84.641953
We were happy to wake up to a dry morning and some glimpses of blue sky. As we were approaching the high mountains we were hoping the sky would clear for our first view of some peaks. Simnang Himal (6,251m) should be visible at ahead but was still cloaked in cloud. The wild flowers made up for the lack of mountain views and the path was dryer which made things easier. But there was lots of uphill and after the last few days of walking our legs were feeling tired.
The better weather meant we were passed by helicopters making their way up and down the valley between Samaguan and Kathmandu. September is the main month in the Autumn season for the Manaslu climbing expeditions – this season there were 24 teams with over 200 permits and 400 people including support team members. A few tough-looking mountaineers passed us on their way down but many of the climbers and their kit go in and out by helicopter.
We passed through the gateway to Lho, excited to see the welcoming sign that we were getting close to Mt Manaslu.
A large mani wall signalled we were entering the region of Tibetan Buddhist culture. Mani walls are lined with prayer stones known as mani stones, many intricately carved. We quickly learned to pass mani walls and chortens on the left / in a clockwise direction which is a sign of respect.
We stopped for lunch in Lho - it would have been a very nice place to stay if we had more time on our trek. It has the first, and some say the best, views of Manaslu – but not for us sadly as the blue sky of the morning had disappeared. Our route after lunch climbed the hill above the village allowing us to visit the Lho monastery - a large Gompa which has accommodation for local children who are taught there.
We continued on towards Samaguan and as the valley broadened we saw our first yaks! Yaks are domesticated animals, valuable animals both for their meat and milk as well as beasts of burden for transporting loads and farming – and we would see plenty more on our journey at the higher altitudes (and many more hairy!).
Samaguan is a large village – clearly benefiting from the mountaineering expeditions. All the hotels were full as the expeditions had all descended from Base Camp and the previous days of bad weather had delayed the helicopter departures and despite an advanced booking we were moved to a hotel still under construction!
We were staying two nights in Samaguan as most trekkers do. Having reached 3,500m we needed to be careful to acclimatize. Ramesh had been monitoring our blood oxygen levels and pulse since Soti Khola to see the effects of altitude. Our measurements were in a normal range but had certainly been affected and I had started to notice my breathing was more rapid. A couple of nights at the same altitude would help. But acclimatization days are not a rest day! The plan was to do a couple of day hikes - walking to higher altitude and back down helps even more. Ramesh suggested that we should set off before light the following day if the weather was good to get the best views, promising to knock on our door at 5 if it was. I was fairly sure he wouldn’t be knocking!
Day 7 – Acclimatization day in Samaghaun
I was woken by loud knocking on our door – it was dark and I quickly climbed out of my sleeping bag and into some clothes to answer the door. Ramesh was outside beckoning excitedly to look at the sky. Amazingly, it was cloudless and as I stepped outside I got my first view of Manaslu - lit by starlight - it hardly seemed real. The story of this magical morning and our hike to Pungyen Gompa – one of the most special places I’ve been in Nepal - I’m saving for a separate post soon. But for now, a picture or two of Manaslu as we set off at dawn:
You can imagine how we felt after the past days of poor weather to see this!
We returned to the hotel for lunch exhilarated after our hike to Pungyen. It had been the perfect decision to go early as the clouds had returned. After the luxury of a siesta we made a shorter hike to visit Bihendra Tal, a turquoise lake named after a former king of Nepal and fed by glacier streams.
A great opportunity to join in the Buddhist custom of building stone stacks (not sure ours is authentic!):
Day 8 –Samaghaun to Samdo
Time: 3hrs. Distance: ~12km. Ascent: 300m.
Samdo: Altitude 3,800m, Coordinates: 28.653589, 84.638322
Today was a short and easy hike – only 3 hours and as we left Samaguan at 7am we caught a few more glimpses of the twin peaks of Mt Manaslu - we’d see it from different angles for the rest of our trek but this angle is the iconic one.
The walk was fairly flat ..
with a last climb to Sambo which sits on a promontory above the valley. As we ascended we were met by our first yak train !
We arrived at about 10.30 and sat in the sunshine outside the hotel until lunchtime – noodle soup and a chapatti chip butty! Re-energized we were ready for our day hike above Samdo. Above 3,000m it's best not to ascend more than 300-500m a day as well as having regular acclimatization days at the same altitude, but following the ‘climb high, sleep low’ maxim (read more about acclimatization here) day hikes are a good plan. Sushil, our porter, was very happy to sit and watch as Ramesh led us up the mountain behind the hotel - straight up! We reached the first viewpoint marked by prayer flags at about 4,300m – a good point for a bit of yoga!
The climb gives views up the valley towards the Larkya La pass and Larke peak (6,249 m) and down the valley towards Samagaun, of Manaslu and Himal Chuli.
But after a breather it was time to continue – Himalayan mountains keep on going up - this one reaching 5,200m but we gave up about 4,900m! The light clouds clung to the mountains mostly obscuring the peaks but it was good watching them – utterly peaceful!
Day 9 –to Samdo to Dharamasla / Larke Phedi
Time: 3hrs. Distance: ~7km. Ascent: 600m.
Dharmasala: Altitude 4,400m, Coordinates: 28.659058, 84.584075
It was another short hike today as we were now getting high and the following day would be a big one crossing the pass. It was another grey and wet start and a steep ascent – a bit of an endurance walk in the conditions. Dharmasala is a very basic dormitory style mountain hut and camp, open only during the trekking season – certainly bleak when we arrived.
But as it was early season we had a room to ourselves. Given its remoteness, it is understandable that it also served the most expensive food on the trek - but the tuna macaroni (about $7) was filling and good.
We reluctantly forced ourselves out on an afternoon acclimatization walk … it was snowing lightly … but reaching about 4,700m decided that was enough. After an early dinner we went to bed fully dressed ready to get up before 4am for our start to the pass of Larkya La!
Day 10 –Dharamasla to Bhimtang via Larkya La (5106m)
Time: 8hrs. Distance: ~16km. Ascent: 700m.
Larkya La: Altitude 5,106m, Coordinates: 28.6627917,84.5156944
Bhimtang: Altitude 3,800m, Coordinates: 28.636209, 84.470909
Our alarm woke us at 3.45am. Leaving early is a good plan to get the best early morning mountain views at sunrise and to get to the pass in good weather and before the normal afternoon winds start. The mountain lodge serves breakfast for everyone staying at that time, and there was an air of trepidation but anticipation! We left at 4.30am walking for the first hour by flashlight and blessed by good weather – a few small clouds but generally clear. After an initial steep start, as it got light it flattened off and we could see the surrounding mountains and a beautiful turquoise lake…
We were walking very slowly - the air is very thin as we were getting to 5,000m and the effort of walking feels more like running.
As we reached 5,000m everything was glistening in the morning sun - covered with a dusting of snow, puddles crunching underfoot and it felt like a very special place.
After 4.5 hrs walking (only about 7 km!) we reached the top of the pass – a large flat summit marked by a cairn and prayer flags and a famous ‘Welcome’ sign - we had reached Larke Pass (5,106m)!
It was a wonderful feeling to have made it - it really wasn’t easy - but we had a huge sense of achievement and we are really grateful to Ramesh and Sushil for getting us there.
After the photos, we were ready to start our descent… actually as we crossed into the Annapurna Conservation area at the top it goes a little more uphill … 5,110m is really the highest point!
We had timed our ascent well as the thin clouds started to blow over, the temperature dropping. From there the trail goes steeply down and we passed donkey trains taking supplies over to Samdo. The short way is from Dharapani rather than the way we had come… but not recommended for trekkers. Generally everyone does the trek in an anti-clockwise direction which gives a slow and gradual ascent avoiding altitude sickness.
We stopped to eat our packed lunch in a sheltered spot before continuing on down the valley to Bhimtang.
After our early start and long walk it was wonderful to find our lovely room (views on 3 sides and ensuite bathroom!) and to take a hot shower. The tea-house had a warm dining room and we celebrated the day with our first beer since we had got to 3,000m.