Friday, 22 May 2020

Yaks and Monasteries, high in the Tsum Valley

This post continues from the last two posts describing my trek into the Tsum Valley in November 2019.

High in the Himalaya in Nepal is a remote glacial valley, the Tsum Valley.  It is a side valley off the Manaslu Trail. To reach Chhokangparo we had climbed from steep sided river valley, up the terminal moraine and onto a flat plain.  So strange to find this agricultural valley so high in the mountains, at around 4000 metres.
The flat valley bottom with a new monastery and stupas in view
It was a gentle and interesting walk to Nile and Chule, the highest villages in the valley, where we stayed at Nile for two nights.  This part of the valley is very Buddhist and considered holy, a place of pilgrimage for devout believers.  Also it is geographically closer to Tibet than to the main parts of Nepal, and the inhabitants here resemble Tibetans both in facial features and in their style of housing and clothes.  There are lots of monasteries in the valley, above on the steep mountain-sides and up side valleys.
Although indistinct in this photo, this monastery has been built on a small platform about an hours walk above the valley bottom. There are several monasteries perched on the steep sides along the valley.

On the flat plain between Chhokangparo and Nile and Chule we came to this new and brightly painted monastery.

When we passed there were young boys arriving to attend the school run by the monks.  The children all had navy-blue tracksuits on, a sign of the modernisation that is affecting even remote areas of Nepal.

Outside is a line of brightly painted modern stupas, which can be seen from far down the valley.

There is at least one holy cave situated on the side of and above the valley.  These caves were used as holy retreats by important Buddhist clergy and are much revered for their sanctity We visited the guardian to collect the key to visit.  Here she is spinning yak wool, which she then weaves into warm blankets to sell.
After the visit to the cave she invited us into her house for a drink of tea.  We sat with her and her husband around the fire in their main living area. They told us about their life and their eight children, now grown up, who have left the valley. She was very proud that one daughter has become a nun and works in Dharmsala in India where the Dalai Llama is.

In their living room they had many family photos on display and beautiful brass plates and bowls lined up on shelves along one wall.

This part of the valley has almost flat fields and agriculture here is very important.  In this photo these villagers are picking up potatoes turned over by the wooden plough being pulled by two buffalo.

The fields are small and much of the field work is done by hand.  Not all though!  There is a modern tractor working in the valley, apparently brought in by helicopter from China. We met it chugging along the lane, the two farm workers on board waved to us enthusiastically.
Look in the river on the photo alongside to see the blue tractor collecting stones for building.

We stayed at Nile and, leaving our bags there the next day, we walked up the valley to Mu Gompa, the old monastery.   We had been warned that overnight accommodation higher up was not available as there is only the Buddhist Gumpa there.

It is a steep climb up to the Gompa, but worth the effort.  The views from the courtyard are fabulous, surrounded by spectacular mountains with the path following the river up the valley towards Tibet.

Looking down the valley we could see the route we had walked up that morning, with Ganesh Himal towering behind.

Inside the Gumpa
Taking off our boots we went inside the holy place. Obviously an old building, it was filled with photographs of special Buddhist clergy, ancient holy books, statues and pictures and other holy artefacts. It felt to be a special place.

The path to Tibet is followed by the Yaks and their drivers.  Local yak owners have special passes to enable them to trade over the border with Tibet, rather than carrying supplies all the way up the valley from Nepal.
On the walk back from Mu Gompa we saw a line of loaded yak on the path across the river.

At the guest house in Nile the following morning we were awakened early by a herd of yaks being loaded in the courtyard, before departure to Tibet.  Quite a surprising sight at 6am!

Yak dung is collected and dried to be used for fuel for fires.  I loved the way it was dried, pressed onto the wall of a house. Just look at the fingerprints!

The journey up the Tsum Valley was spectacular, so much to see in both the landscape and the people and their homes.  An experience of a lifetime!

Monday, 6 April 2020

Chumling to Chhokangparo, Tsum Valley

This post follows on from the most recent blog post "Into the Tsum Valley"

The Tsum Valley is high in the Himalaya, reached by a side path off the Manaslu Trail, two days walk from the road end at Sotikhola, Gorkha.
Looking back along the path to Chumling 
The valley side here is incredibly steep.  Everywhere you can hear the river a long way below, but you only rarely get a glimpse of it, turquoise from the glacier melt.

In the lower part of the valley many trekkers stay at Chumling, as we did.  There are several lodges there, catering for trekkers with food and accommodation. The village is spread out over the mountain side, with attractive wooden lodges.

The views of the mountains from here are fabulous, looking both up and down the valley.
A water-turned prayer wheel at Chumling
Prayer flags flying at the lodge where we

Entering the Tsum Valley is like entering a different world, remote and very Buddhist with reminders at every corner;  prayer flags, chortens, prayer wheels, Gumpas and monasteries abound.

As well as the underlying sound of the river, the air is filled with the sounds of insects, birds, cattle and of local people calling and working in their fields.

Look carefully at the photo alongside to see a group of monkeys.  They were obviously a pest in Chhokangparo too, as we witnessed them boldly raiding the fields for millet and maize, with local people and dogs trying to chase them off.

Leaving Chumling the trail passed gently through woodland and between fields.  Always the river was to be heard below us. Flowers and coloured butterflies decorated the edges of the path.

After an hour or so of gentle walking the path changes. Time to climb steeply!  This is the boundary between the lower steep-sided river valley and the flat glacial plain above, at the top of the valley. I think it may be the remains of a glacial moraine, however it was an hour of hard climbing on the path to the top.
Half way up the steep slope we came across this improvised tented cafe, perched on a small rocky platform. We were carrying our own drinks so did not stop, but did notice the plentiful wild cannabis plants growing around it!

The upper valley has many Buddhist chortens, mainly on hill tops or in prominent places, where they can be seen from afar.  Mani stones, carved with Buddhist words and symbols are used in their making.  Festooned with prayer flags, they add to the special sights of this beautiful valley.

The new lodge where we stayed overnight

We stayed overnight in a very new lodge on the edge of the village of Chhokangparo. We arrived early enough in the afternoon to have chance to relax, and we also explored the village.

The path follows a narrow 'street' through
the village of Chhokangparo.

Stone roofed dwelling

Many of the houses are built of stone and some older buildings have roofs of overlapping stones too. Most newer roofs are of corrugated iron, which is much safer in an earthquake.

The new gateway in Chhokangparo has beautiful Buddhist paintings on the ceiling and walls inside. One in Phillim has similar decorations, and also others I have seen. I am always impressed by the workmanship and the bright colours, despite not understanding the meaning of these pictures and designs.

Looking back at Chhokangparo, with wonderful view of the Manaslu Range beyond.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Trekking into the Tsum Valley

The Tsum Valley is a high Himalayan valley reached by taking a side path off the Manuslu Trail. The valley is at present two to three days walk from the road end at Sotikhola, in Gorkha District. A special permit must be bought in Kathmandu to travel into this valley and you must be accompanied by a registered guide.

The walk up the valley of the Buddha Gandaki River is strenuous and challenging with constant rises and falls, often over steep rocky places or steps. There is even a cantilever metal pathway attached to the vertical rock in two places.

The trail passes through many small settlements, which seem to exist mainly to serve travellers on their way up or down the valley. Most have small guest houses where travellers can stay and buy cooked food and drinks.

Each settlement has a few fields for crops and most have domestic animals; hens, ducks, goats, sometimes sheep or a buffalo.

Blasting the rock sides for the new road

A new road is being built up the valley, to connect these remote communities. This is being anticipated by many local people, but sadly it is spoiling the pristine scenery of the steep valley, with ugly scars where the cliffs have been blasted away to form the road bed.  When completed the walk into the Tsum Valley will be much reduced.

At times the views looking ahead and upwards towards the mountains is breathtaking. Several mountains over 7,000 metres can be seen, including Manaslu and Ginesh Himal.

A few hours walk above Phillim, the municipal centre of the region, the trail divides, with the Manuslu Circuit branching left and over the river. 

Taking the right hand path the traveller passes through the ornately painted Buddhist arch into the Tsum Valley.  The first settlement reached, high on the valley side, is Lokpa, comprising of only a couple of guest houses. We stayed there on our walk up into the valley.

Beyond that the path winds up and down through lush forest, crossing by suspension bridge over a spectacular side torrent which tumbled down the ravine it has eroded, over huge boulders. One can only imagine the massive impact that the boulders caused as they fell from high above. At times the main river can be seen far below, a vivid turquoise colour of glacier meltwater.  The forest was dotted with trees bearing pink blossom (as in the photo), despite it being the autumn season.

Across on the other side of the valley there are patches of cultivated terrace with remote small houses perched nearby. People who live in these houses must be almost completely self sufficient, growing most if not all of their food and using wood collected from the nearby forest areas for construction and firewood. 

In the photo here our Guide is talking to a man  working on an enormous hardwood tree that he was cutting into planks. Each plank was  precisely cut, using a chainsaw but without measuring instruments. We later stayed in newly constructed guest houses made of planks like these.

After several hours walk through the forest the path drops to a suspension bridge crossing the river. The bridge is festooned with colourful prayer flags.

This for many is the true start of the Tsum Valley. Once over the river the long winding uphill path takes the trekker to Chumling, a village perched on the steep side of the valley. Much of this village comprises of small guest houses made of timber, servicing the trekkers visiting the Tsum Valley. Chumling is a popular overnight stopping place, being a reasonable days walk from Phillim or even further from Jagat for some.

A newly built guesthouse near Chumling, made of locally sawn timber.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Beautiful faces

Many Nepali people have such beautiful expressive faces.  They smile so readily too.

These young children were enjoying a game at school
This man was weaving a basket from bamboo

Gurung lady with the coloured materials she sells in her shop.
Year 10 boy at school

Dancers in Lamjung

Woman spinning wool in Tsum Valley

This lady insisted we had tea with her

Girl using small whiteboard that we provided

Shepherd and one of his sheep (below)

This class of primary children saying goodbye as we left to walk back down the trail