Highest elevation: 12,138 ft (3,700 m)
Lowest elevation: 2,851 ft (869 m)
Leaving Yarsa in a hurry to be rid of our now seemingly ungracious hosts, we made it to the next village in record time after a tea and cookie break to debrief and reduce our blood pressure a bit. At the edge of town, we started down what looked like a main trail but locals denied that it went to Machakhola, instead pointing to a thin trail through a millet field. This seemed unlikely, but we were under the watchful eyes of the strangers we asked, so we proceeded. The trail cascaded down what felt like eighty terraces, each vertical wall with only slippery nubbins of rock to step down, or rather fall down as we each did multiple times. This shortcut did not help improve our mood, especially once we spied a normal trail just a little ways beyond ours that led to the same bridge we needed to cross.
Once across the bridge, we were faced with more confusing trail options than the section we had hired our guides for the previous day. Ultimately, it did not matter which trail we chose as all trails eventually led down to the Budi Khandaki river, but we did manage to reach the river quite a bit downstream from the town we were aiming for. Both the overgrown and rocky condition of the trail and the extra distance we then had to cover further contributed to the deterioration of our mood, especially when the suspension bridge spanning the river led to a sketchy narrow path down the side of a cliff. We carefully negotiated our way down while our hearts thumped with adrenalized blood.
We walked along the river to Machakhola where we randomly chose one of the many concrete behemoths that they call hotels. Apparently we had crossed some sort of invisible expensive line as well. The hotel owner quoted us the most expensive price yet for a room and was unwilling to bargain, an everyday practice in Nepal including on all previous trekking routes. This also did not help improve our mood. After an overdue hot shower as the best part of our day, we ate the least exciting dal bhat possible, again not helping our mood.
The lowest point in elevation on our trek at a mere 2,800 feet corresponded with our lowest emotional state as well, but the next day we were set on having a fresh start. We had a leisurely morning, cooking up the last of the oatmeal that we had schlepped around with us from Kathmandu. We walked just a couple of hours up the river to yet another village called Tatopani, expecting a nice spot for a soak in hot water. Instead, we found two spouts of lukewarm water with no pool below them. Not exactly a destination worthy of a rest day, but the one lodge in town was dramatically perched over the river and had a young friendly manager who cooked up delicious food such as fried banana pie. We hand washed our laundry with warm water from the spring for a nice treat, then spent the afternoon chilling in the balmy weather at outdoor tables set right along the trail through town. This made for a great spot to watch all the trekkers have the same reaction of disappointment upon first spying the "hot spring," muscular porters stripping down for a free hot shower under the spouts, and countless mule trains passing through with bags of lentils and rice, among other things no doubt, on their backs. We dubbed them four-legged walking dal bhat. Nuns on their way down to Kathmandu for the winter even stopped to shave their heads with the warm water, unfortunately then throwing the plastic bags holding their shaven hair directly into the river!
The next day was more of the same sort of people watching, taking bets on whether our guide would actually show up or not, and if so at what time. We had reluctantly pre-arranged a guide to meet us through Asian Heritage, an agency in Kathmandu, for the sections of trail where the government regulations require that we have one. Especially after a month of trekking on our own, we felt confidently self-sufficient and enjoyed having a leisurely schedule without anyone else to complicate it, so we were not particularly looking forward to his arrival. Yet sure enough, Dawa Sherpa came cruising up the trail at mid-afternoon, promptly handing over our passports, but hanging on to a month's worth of permits for the Manaslu, Tsum Valley, and Nar Phu treks into "restricted" areas close to the Tibetan border. For example, the first area he would guide us in to, Tsum Valley, was only opened to tourism in 2008. However, since he had been hiking since 3am that morning, we stayed put for the remainder of the day and chatted about routes and the usual get-to-know-you stuff.
We got an early start, for us, the following day and after our first break I went to pull my sunglasses off their usual resting place on my ball cap and to my shock they were not there! We looked around without luck, so I decided to run back nearly an hour to Tatopani, chagrined that I had mocked Dawa when he asked if we checked our room for left items. Of course, they were not at the lodge either; it seems they had simply disappeared off the top of my head despite the fact that I always wore that very pair there for years. When we later caught up to Suzanne, another American trekker who we got to know at Tatopani, her photo of us proved that the sunglasses were indeed in place after departure, absolving me of forgetfulness at least. Dawa spent the rest of the day scoping porters heading down to see if they had "goggles" they might be willing to sell, explaining that they would become essential for crossing snowy passes later on. We did find some "awesome" ones the next day in a little shop for a bargain of three dollars. Now when I put them on, I say their "brand" name out loud with the coolest attitude I can muster: Air Force. I haven't gone snow blind yet, so they must be doing something...
At the first tourist establishment on the Tsum Valley spur, we again had the joyous opportunity to leave our camping gear behind, so our packs more closely resembled that of our guide, although his was still lighter. This was his first opportunity to trek Tsum a Valley as well, a fact which he was very open about and we certainly appreciated his frankness. His lack of firsthand knowledge actually helped us adjust to having a guide. Since he did not have an agenda nor favorite lodges to insist we stay at, our decision making was much more collaborative than we had been observing with other guides and their clients. His laid back and super flexible approach, paired with just the right level of attentiveness and an excellent sense of humor put our qualms about having a guide to rest within a few days.
Despite having a wad of tobacco tucked in his lower lip more often than not, our guide may have one of the best grins on the planet. In Nepal, people rarely call others by their name, instead using the terms older/younger brother/sister. While we tended to stick to our own cultural custom of calling him Dawa rather than bhai, our Sherpa guide did indeed feel like our little brother. Sherpa is both his last name and his caste, a term that roughly equates to his culture. However, sherpa is also his profession when he is working on big mountain expeditions. A mountain sherpa may haul gear between camps, but primarily is climbing alongside the clients to assist them in safely reaching the summit. Sherpas are not the same as trekking porters, although the terms are often confused. As a mountain sherpa, Dawa Sherpa has climbed several of the famous 8,000 meter peaks, including Everest from the Tibetan side, Cho Oyo, and Manaslu, among other summits and attempts.
While our outlook on having a guide certainly did a 180, we never got over the aggravating irony that as soon as one was compulsory, trail signs with arrows and estimated hiking times to the next village suddenly appeared everywhere, along with excessive hot pink spray paint arrows and dots in between all the signs. The only thing less pleasing than that route graffiti to foreign tourists' eyes is all the litter lining the trails. Between the signage and the garbage, it would be impossible for even the most clueless tourist to get lost. Perhaps it is to help all the guides who have never walked the route before look like they know what they are doing! In contrast, we had just completed five different sections of our trek independently with nary a trail sign at questionable junctions, nor a single drop of spray paint to reassure us that we were going the right way.
It was a straight shot up the valley anyway, taking us three days to reach the high point of Mu Gompa at 3,700 meters. Along the way, a highlight was having a woman shove a tiny lamb in my arms as we passed each other on the trail, while another one peered out of a doko (woven bamboo basket). I gave it back, but just barely. A culinary high was ordering a pumpkin pie for breakfast when Matt mistakenly thought it was Thanksgiving. Luckily, we were at a lodge where the young cook was more like a chef, having had professional training in Kathmandu. The pumpkin pie came out as a fried pocket filled with fresh local pumpkin chunks, caramelized sugar, and the occasional raisin. It was so amazing that a few days later, but still not yet Thanksgiving, we hiked in a very hungry state on our way back down the valley in order to eat there again for lunch. It was not a fluke, pumpkin pie number two was just as good, and we also tasted his apple pie for good measure.
Another lovely memory was being invited inside a traditional Tsum Valley home for some not very traditional Nescafé 3+1, that's three parts milk and sugar and one part coffee--I checked the ingredient list! On our way out, the hostess jokingly called Matt a monkey because he was so hairy. Later the same day, we had lunch in another traditional kitchen where the woman spontaneously grasped around Matt's calf with both hands and ran them up and down, presumably to see what leg hair feels like!
Tsum Valley residents are Tibetan in origin, so Dawa felt right at home since his Sherpa community in Nepal's far east region of Kanchenjunga maintains many similar elements of its Tibetan heritage. The kitchens have extensive open cabinets where ornate silver vessels are on display framed by patterned woodwork. An eye-catching centerpiece was a shelf dedicated to several tremendous beaten copper tubs. Each one looked like it cost a fortune and we could not fathom why a home would require four or five. Luckily, we had a guide to explain that in winter all the water outside freezes, so they need to store a good supply of water inside the warm home. An small altar with butter lamps, offering bowls filled with water, and incense always occupied a high corner of the room as well. There were also photos of the Dali Lama, which are prohibited by the Chinese government just a few miles across the northern border in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
A pleasant surprise was hiking on the flattest trail of our entire trek as we reached the upper valley, which widened into agricultural fields that must have once been a glacial lakebed formed by a terminal moraine dam. This allowed room for many chortens and long mani walls to compliment the mountainous scenery. In contrast, the lower valley was quite narrow with a formidable river grinding away at the task of making it even deeper below us as we huffed up thin trails that clung to the steep sides.
An unpleasant surprise was encountering a road as the gentler terrain made its construction feasible. Since a road seems impossible in the lower valley, we wondered what the point of it could be. We learned from a Tsum Valley resident that the bulldozer, which we witnessed tearing up the ground inches away from a sacred mani wall, had to be helicoptered in to the site in several pieces. From what we could gather, this road has but one purpose; it is headed north to facilitate better, easier, faster trade with China. Locals already make the trip across the border, bringing back packaged foods, dish ware, and most importantly, cans of Lhasa brand beer on the backs of mules. It is the modern day equivalent of the traditional pre-occupation trading that Nepal did with Tibet, but now cheap and cheaply-made shoes have replaced gold dust, wool, and yak tails.
With one final steep climb, we arrived at the expansive monastery called Mu Gompa, largely deserted as all but a few monks and staff had already headed down to Kathmandu to escape the harshness of winter. We peeked inside the main gompa as a monk was performing daily chores, then arranged an opportunity to meet the eldest lama in his personal quarters. At 76 years old, he no longer descends to the main gompa to receive visitors. We were greeted with warmth and genuine excitement and settled on to cushions on the floor next to a small fireplace. We were then served some "tea" made from the ubiquitous Nescafé 3+1 (it must come from China!) and a plate of boiled potatoes that Dawa insisted on peeling by hand for us after we ate one with the skin still on. While Dawa's first language of Tibetan had proven handy for the entire trek, here it really illuminated our visit with the lama and put everyone at ease. The lama explained that his knees are too weak to make the trek down the valley, so he spends the winter here mostly alone. The thought of the loneliness to come brought tears to his eyes a couple of times. The only thing that kept tears from coming to my eyes too was the presence of a young attentive caretaker that the lama praised for his good work. At the end of the visit, we presented him with a small donation and khatas (silky white scarves). He in turn placed different khatas around our necks with a blessing.
On our way down the valley, we decided to take a side trip from our side trip by going up another valley branching off from Tsum. This time we stayed at a nunnery with just a couple of nuns overwintering, one particularly welcoming and gregarious. We cuddled in a blanket near the cooking fire in the dark kitchen, sipping tea and eating a new variation of the boiled potato: she put tiny boiled potatoes in the coals of the fire, rotated and pulled them out with tongs, setting them on the table before us. Dawa rolled them between his hands to remove the ash, then popped them in his mouth. We did the same, wondering why this time it was okay to leave the skin on. Dawa and she then used some great culinary teamwork to get the dal bhat underway. Bellies full, we retired to our "deluxe suite," only in the sense that the other option was sleeping on a semi-enclosed porch of the gompa. In our room attached to the side of the gompa, we spread out our sleeping pads and bag, then closed the "door" by hanging a burlap bag across the doorway.
The next morning we took a side trip from our side trip that was already a side trip by hiking up another valley to see a glacier that was just out of sight from the gompa. Once up the valley a ways, we climbed up an old lateral moraine to be treated to views of several of the Ganesh Himal peaks just before all vistas were enveloped in clouds for the rest of the day. This was the real Thanksgiving (even though we had been celebrating with pumpkin pie a bit early!) and while dinner was just another dal bhat, we were grateful for where we had been, where we were, and the opportunity to keep going on this journey. We wished we could make contact with our families, but too many side trips had resulted in communication remoteness.
Our last day descending Tsum Valley was a long one, made longer by a lunch stop in a one-lodge town off the main tourist track. In order to get a bowl of soup, Dawa first had to track down the owner, whom we found with her hands in deep in cow manure, mixing it with straw to spread as fertilizer on their fields. Oh, yay. While we can't confirm that any soap was used, she did scrub vigorously, including under the fingernails, before entering the kitchen. In the end, it didn't really matter since our guide is also a trained cook and was the one who made our Sherpa stew in her kitchen. It seems that he lends more than just a helping hand for many of our meals, but it works out all the better for us!
Our knees were aching from coming down several thousand feet to Lokpa, near the entrance to Tsum Valley. We would leave our side trip behind the next day, rejoining the Manaslu Circuit and its duplicate identity as the route for the Great Himalaya Trail.