We arrived in Kathmandu to meet up with our buddy, Oren, from SF and had a hectic 2 days preparing for our trek around Mount Manaslu and the Annapurnas. At just over 8,100 meters, Manaslu is the the 8th highest peak in the world, and although we wouldn't be getting anywhere near that height, we would be crossing the two passes over 5,000 meters, so we definitely needed cold weather gear.
The trip started in Gorkha, the home of the famous Gurkha warriors and a beautiful temple palace on the hillside. Many animals are sacrificed at the temple for the Goddess Durga during the Dashain holiday, which began a few days into our trip. Dashain is the biggest holiday in Nepal and lasts 10 days, and although it was great to see the local villagers celebrating with their friends and family, it also presented many headaches for us because most porters were either 1) unavailable, 2) more expensive, or 3) less reliable (aka, drunk all day).
Unfortunately, we caught the tail end of the monsoon season, which meant we spent my 30th birthday hiding from the rain in a dirty town just outside of Gorkha. But, Oren and Gil bought me some fun gifts, our cook whipped up a passable cake and the local kids taught us how to make a kite, so it wasn't all bad. Plus, because our tents were leaking, we got to spend the night in the Principal's office at the nearby school. How cool is that?
After traveling through the tropical low lands for several days we reached the Buri Gandaki river, which we would follow all the way to the Himalayas. Walking through the river valley, it felt like we'd discovered a real-life Shangri-La. A rainbow of butterflies and hundreds of cascading waterfalls fed our eyes daily, and smiling faces greeted us with "Namaste" wherever we went. The Dashain holiday made it all the more special, with children playing on the towering swings that had been built for the occasion and the local men happily divvying up the offerings of goat, water buffalo and chickens among their families.
But, as it was harvest season, it was not all fun and games - men and women were hard at work scything magenta amaranth in the terraced fields, threshing buckwheat, spinning cloth or splitting wood in preparation for the approaching winter months. It was an eye opening experience to view this subsistence lifestyle up close, and to consider that we were a good week-long walk away from the modern day amenities we all take for granted. There was a certain nostalgia to it - the simplicity of working the land and taking comfort in your family and spirituality - but it was also apparent that it's a tough life. For example, we were approached by many people with injuries in the hopes that one of us might be able to provide some much needed medical attention. In talking with the younger people, it is clear that they face a tough decision between eking out an existence in the mountains like their parents before or moving to Kathmandu and struggling to start their life anew in a strange land with its own problems.
As we made our way north, the terrain changed from tropical to dry Himalayan highlands. A cultural transition followed this change in environment, with Hindi temples giving way to Buddhist stupas and prayer wheels. We visited several gompas and monasteries, and even passed by one of the "hidden valleys" that Guru Rinpoche identified as a safe refuge for devout Buddhists in times of trouble.
At one point, Tibet was a mere 5 kilometers away, and Buddhism wasn't the only evidence of its influence in Nepal. We came across several yak caravans loaded with timber and other goods for trade heading for the border. It was a very curious sight, but also somewhat bitter, as we saw first-hand that forests are being clear-cut at alarming rates in large part to support the Chinese population growth across the border.
Crossing over the Larkay La pass was by far the longest and most challenging day of our trek. We started before sunrise, but the near-full moon provided plenty of light to guide us and the stark contrasts created by the moonlight gave us distinct feeling that we had been plunged into an Ansel Adam photograph. The path through the snow (which was thigh-deep in places) was not well worn and we were trudged forward slowly. Unfortunately, Oren was also battling a case of AMS (Accute Mountain Sickness), which is seriously debilitating and dangerous. We were relieved when we finally saw the prayer flags adorning the pass in front of us, but soon discovered that going down in the now slushy snow would be much more difficult than going up! But, with the support of our wonderful guide, Bhola, (and a few versus of "Eye of the Tiger") we all made it safely to the next camp.
We felt right at home during our final few days on the Mansalu circuit, as the path meandered easily along a glacial river and through beautiful pine forests reminiscent of the Sierras. It was a great transition from the rawness of Manaslu to the (relative) comforts of the much more developed Annapurna circuit, which we joined for the final leg of the trek.