Leisa Tyler follows ancient routes and new paths alike on a Nepalese walking trail set among its magnificent landscapes.
At 4am, someone knocks on my door. I've barely slept anyway. The altitude is 4460 metres and the air is too thin for deep slumber. I reach for my water bottle, but it's frozen solid. My clothes, damp from sweat and my falls in the snow, are frozen. I'm in Dharmashala on day 12 of the Manaslu Circuit, a 177-kilometre walking trail that circumnavigates Nepal's 8156-metre Mount Manaslu, the eighth-highest peak in the world. Today, we are to cross the 5160-metre Larkya Pass, the highest point on the trail and our goal for the past 11 days of uphill walking. But a snowstorm has been raging, making the pass potentially treacherous, and our guides aren't sure it's safe to attempt it.
My last wash was a week ago and there is little more to eat than rice, boiled lentils and rancid yak cheese, so I'm eager to press on. The well-trodden Annapurna Trail, endowed with "luxuries" such as showers, is just two days' walk away.
It's snowing, but word comes that we will try the pass. Trekkers, guides and porters weighed down like packhorses set off by torchlight. There is no visible path, just an occasional pole poking out of the snow.
The weather clears as the rising sun washes the sky a dusty shade of blue. There is little oxygen and walking is challenging. But the views are worth the pain: gleaming white walls topped with jagged peaks as far as the eye can see. Then word comes that two groups of trekkers ahead of us, enervated by the altitude, have had to turn back.
Following an ancient salt-trading route that snakes along the sides of the Budhi Gandaki, a tributary of the Gandaki River, before crossing the vast Larkya Glacier and plummeting to the Annapurna Trail, the Manaslu Circuit is Nepal's latest must-do trail. The trail was officially opened to foreigners in 1991, but passing through a protected area required expensive permits and expedition equipment. About three years ago, basic guesthouses, known as teahouses, opened and the government, keen to promote the area, eased licence regulations and costs, making it more accessible for trekkers.
Manaslu's other big push came from the development of the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT), an initiative of the Nepali government and Dutch aid agency SNV, which uses trekking to help alleviate poverty. About 45 per cent of people living in Nepal's western mountain region live below the poverty line. Many villages are several days' walk from the nearest road and locals have very few ways to generate income. Accommodating foreign trekkers is a key one.
Because 85 per cent of trekkers in Nepal - about 100,000 a year - walk in the most established trail areas of Annapurna, Everest and Langtang, the GHT team sees room for expansion. By mapping and co-ordinating new trails stretching the breadth of the Nepali Himalayas, and providing that information free to trekkers, it hopes visitors will be lured onto new paths and, in turn, help create employment. Plans don't stop there: Nepal is just the first section of the GHT to become operational. Organisers hope it will span the entire range, from Pakistan to China.
Keen to see the effects of tourism among remote cultures, my husband and I join a small team from Kathmandu-based company Himalayan Encounters, one of Nepal's biggest and most reputable trekking agencies. Our guide is an experienced and safety-conscious but bossy 30-year-old called Santosh; our porter is a gentle father of two with legs like steel whom we call Kaka, meaning uncle.
We begin the Manaslu Circuit trail at Soti Khola, a small village at the end of the road about 170 kilometres - or an eight-hour drive - from Kathmandu. It's drizzling when we leave the clutch of tin sheds that make up the Soti Khola and follow a herd of mules loaded with steel pylons along a dirt track cut into a thickly forested mountainside. The jingle of brass bells strapped around the mules' manes competes for air time with a raging stream that cascades over glossy grey rocks below.
The scenery of the Manaslu Circuit is nothing short of magnificent: winding from rice-growing plains and lush foothills inhabited by devout Hindus to just a few kilometres from the Tibetan border, the circuit immerses walkers in different climates and cultures. The further we climb, the more Tibetans we see. Faces grow rounder, skin more leathery and the melodic tones of Nepali give way to more guttural-sounding Tibetan dialects. Statues of Hindu gods Krishna and Ganesh give way to prayer flags; cotton squares stamped with mantras that Mahayana Buddhists believe, when flown in the wind, release prayers into the air. Mani walls - mounds of slate etched with pictures of Guru Rinpoche, credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet - line the track.
No meat is available in the Tibetan areas (killing is purportedly forbidden for these devout Buddhists) and I never see a fresh vegetable; locals seems to survive on a diet of grains and yak milk. Alcohol, on the other hand, appears to be part of many a diet. At Lho, seven days along the trail, we meet a group of elderly Tibetans falling over themselves on home-made raksi, a distilled millet or rice wine. A kilometre later, we stop at a teahouse where a table of rowdy men are already on their fourth bottle of baijiu, a Chinese rice liquor. It's 11am. Each night we bunk in teahouses. These rudimentary shacks are often built with green wood that, when dried, leaves five-centimetre gaps in the walls. Bedrooms on the trail are private but toilets are shared. Showers disappear after day three.
Among the other trekking groups on our route are a 76-year-old American woman who has completed more than 30 treks in Nepal, a jovial Russian businessman with his 16-year-old daughter, and a British couple who live in Belgium. Each group has its own guide, which is mandatory for the Manaslu Trail. Most also have a porter.
We also share the trail with nimble-footed mules strapped high with everything from gas canisters to bags of flour and rice - and with human haulers. I speak to a woman carrying about 50 kilograms of roofing iron from a strap around her forehead who is walking from Soti Khola to Samagaon, the biggest village on the trail. The journey earns her 11,000 Nepali rupees ($128). The iron will be used to build teahouses.
We see other examples of Manaslu's new economy. Gun Karki used to work as a labourer in the Gulf, returning home every two to three years. When tourists started to arrive in the Manaslu area, Karki built a teahouse. Now he is extending. "We can now earn enough to get by, " his wife, Ramkumari, says. This year, they will send their eldest daughter to college; she is the first family member to receive a formal education. Yet the GHT development has some way to go. No one regulates the number of trekkers on the trail at any one time, causing bottlenecks as the supply of beds cripples under the demand. Hygiene is also an issue: not once do I see people wash their hands before preparing food, including our guide, who helps prepare most meals.
Tourists can also be fleeced for the cost of simple items such as hot water or tea. The Russians get a ticket to the extraction game: the daughter, struggling with the onset of altitude sickness, accidentally left a small bag when she stopped to rest. A local boy picked it up and carried it to Samagaon, intending to give it back. The boy's father, however, fast not to miss an opportunity and in concert with his neighbours, demanded the Russians pay a 12,000-rupee "reward". Which they did.
I struggle to understand how some locals can afford to drink, until I learn that packaged goods such as liquor and chocolate bars cost a fraction of the price foreigners pay, despite taking the same amount of energy to walk into the region by mule.
The price of beer fades into insignificance as our group drags itself, step by breathless step, to Larkya Pass, eight long hours after we left Dharmashala on the 12th day. We rejoice in our efforts and think the worst is over, until we see the trail leading down the other side of the pass; a near-vertical 1000-metre slope strewn with rocks and juniper plants hidden by snow and whipped by an icy wind howling in from Tibet. It is not until about 4pm, 12 hours after we set out, that we see the village of Bimthang, a cluster of stone houses shadowed by the imposing peak of the luminous Phungi Himal. I venture out to buy a bottle of local whisky before my legs give up altogether. The whisky is rough and burns in our bellies, but tonight, to me, it's like gold.
The next day, our Manaslu Circuit itinerary has us scheduled to spend the night in Tilije, but our group is beyond desperate for a bath so we agree to push on to the Annapurna Trail. It is the most beautiful section of the circuit; it skirts the west side of Mount Manaslu before plunging to an ancient pine forest where tree limbs stoop from the weight of wiry moss. Rhododendrons and azaleas are in full bloom, their startling scarlet-red and violet flowers vivid against the mountains. We pass fields lush with new rice and lunch on "delicacies" of carrot and spinach.
Nine hours later, just as each step starts to feel like walking on broken glass, the Annapurna hamlet of Dharapani comes into view. Kaka, our group porter, breaks into a trot. Shuffling behind him, we file into the first teahouse advertising "Beer, fried chicken and hot showers found here!"
Singapore Airlines, partnering with Silk Air, has a fare from Sydney and Melbourne to Kathmandu via Singapore priced from $1715 low-season return. See singaporeair.com.
Himalayan Encounters has a 15-day trek of Manaslu Circuit, priced from $US845 ($825) a person, twin share. The cost includes private transfers from Kathmandu, permits, a guide, porter and teahouse accommodation. For $US765 a person, twin share, trekkers can undertake the circuit but choose and pay for their own accommodation, which is recommended. See himalayanencounters.com.
World Expeditions has treks of the Great Himalaya Trail from east to west. A 157-day tour of the entire trail costs from $34,990 a person and includes six nights' accommodation in Kathmandu, all meals, internal flights, transfers, porters, camping gear and permits. See worldexpeditions.com.
When to go
September to November is Nepal's best trekking season, but also the busiest. Early December or March-April are less busy.