PICS: RAIMON ALFARO
AROUND MANASLU: Horses graze in the shadow of Manaslu and the Ribung Gomba.
"Hello ůNamaste ůHi," and a nod of the head when gasping up an incline; there seemed no end to the trekkers on the trail. On the other side of the Marsyangdi River, workers drilled into the hill. It would take more than a road to deter trekkers drawn by the lure of the Annapurnas, but we couldn't help but feel sorry for the Johnny-come-latelies crowding the famous circuit - heading up in the opposite direction to us - oblivious to the 150-kilometre circuit of neighbouring Manaslu we'd just completed. If only they knew.
We didn't either, to start with. We'd almost missed Manaslu, caught up in a welter of itineraries old and new, when I took a second look at the route linked to the Great Himalaya Trail's website. We reckoned we could make the circuit in the fortnight available to us, and the rest, as they say, is natural history.
A shepherd carries a kid in a net around his neck.
It began with all the dubious joys of the highway. By microbus, bus and jeep, on steadily deteriorating tracks, we passed Gorkha before coming to settle at Soti Khola, where we commenced a classic Nepali trekking circuit - moving from lush, sub-tropical humidity through temperate forests all the way up to barren, icy Himalayan grandeur topping 5,000 metres, and back down again.
Annapurna II (7937m, far right) awaits across the Larkya La (5100m)
As with any self-respecting circuit, this one was a long meditation on a single massif, with many glorious distractions along the way. Manaslu, the eight-highest mountain in the world at 8156m, did not disappoint. From its two-horned appearance on the fifth day of walking, at Syo, it steadily rose out of the lesser peaks surrounding it until it completely dominated the northwestern aspect of the route - unless of course you looked back to admire Himalchuli (7,893m), most impressive in the wide-angle panorama from Syala. The closer we approached, the more impressive the glaciers that sloughed down from these ice giants, despite the extent of their retreat.
The distractions, if one can call them that, comprised the transitions through Hindu, Gurung and Tibetan cultures, mirrored by shifts in flora and fauna, that make a 'typical' Nepali trek so intriguing. There were the myriad species of butterflies about our feet down low, and a 40-strong herd of blue sheep up high. There were the misty wood-shingled villages thronged with rosy-cheeked children and moody yaks. Thick forests spanning sal to pine. And the waterfalls thundering into the Budigandaki, frozen into glaciers in the thin air as we crossed the Larkya La (5100m) for views of the Annapurna range.
Such a journey as this is much more than the sum of its parts. It's about the elongated moments of wellbeing, so rare in our jumbled-up urban lives, that become commonplace when there is nothing but nature around you. Walking. Talking. Using all five senses. The rasp of a tree trunk under my fingertips and the morning sun on the nape of my neck; the shrill call of a bird, the laughter of a child, and the mournful clunking of belled yaks grazing in the night; the damp musk rising from a leaf-strewn forest path and the piney chill of the mountain air; even the taste of plain, smoky dalbhat, cloven in two by the heart-stopping fire of a green chilli.
Thanks to the intrusions of the road next door, and the overflow from Everest, we were not the only people discovering Manaslu. With 2,322 foreign trekkers in 2,010, up from 344 in 1995, Manaslu is set to become the next trekker's Mecca. The opportunity is not just for hopeful hoteliers who've invested in new stone cottages with plywood partitions, in village after village. Government could help clear the bureaucratic brush that deters trekking agencies from starting business in Manaslu, and the Manaslu Conservation Area Project should rapidly move to regulate prices (Samdo's Chez Karsang Sans Toilet makes my personal $hitlist), control wood consumption (the sole kerosene depot we saw appears to have been converted into a hotel dining room), and provide the necessary hospitality training for newbie hoteliers.
Manaslu will do the rest.
Officially, the Manaslu circuit is still a camping trek, but don't be fooled by the fake inventories the agencies have to submit for permits. Some teahouses don't yet have toilets, but things will only get better. A sleeping bag's still handy.
The circuit runs anti-clockwise from Arughat (east of Gorkha) to Besisahar, but the advent of tracks means one can start from Soti Khola and end in Chamje instead, making for a two-week circuit. The trek isn't especially hard if you've had a little experience, but make sure to acclimatise.
Off the beaten trek