I wanted to trek this region since my 2011 trip to the Everest region.
People started talking about it as ‘the new Annapurna’, as it has no roads to spoil the trekking experience.
It became more than just a trek for me, after the devastating earthquake of April 2015. The epicentre of the 7.8 Richter scale quake was right under this magnificent area, close to the town of Gorkha. It killed nearly 9000 people and injured 22000.
I got in touch with guides and local people I was in touch with, back in 2012-13, when I was planning my trek here. One of them, Dhawa Gyanjen Tsumba, A guide, Photographer and expert on the Tsum, was determined to help the isolated people of the Tsum valley, a spur that juts out of the Manaslu/Nubri valley and form a hidden valley, hidden from the world in best of times but after the disaster, it was completely cut-off and forgotten. Houses were destroyed, people were injured. Dhawa organised his own helicopter flights to the Tsum, evacuated the most injured and brought food and medicine.
The little twin village of Chumling- Chumchet lost the only school that served the entire lower Tsum valley, a poor, small outbuilding even before the quake, serving more as a meeting point for children that can attend, now it was completely ruined. Dhawa, together with another Tsumba (Tsum people are known as Tsumba), Sonam Lama, an architect from Kathmandu, decided to plan and build a new school for the village.
I got behind the project and together with friends from all over the world, $30,000 were raised, to build a modern, quake proof structure on the site of the old school.
It was very emotional meeting Dhawa on the night I arrived in Kathmandu. I was travelling with a relative from Israel, Shmuel (Shmulik) Segal. An ex Paratrooper and an excellent companion.
The trip can be divided into 3 or even 4 sections.
Arughat Bazzar-Soti Khola- a real Nepalese adventure! A jeep ride along a road so rough, I swear walking is faster! The danger and discomfort were not worth the risk, but we already paid for it and it helps the local economy, so, why not, photography was almost impossible though.
Soti Khola- start of trek, Lower Nubri valley- this trek is so long, it takes about 3 days of trekking just to get to the gate entry into the national park in Jagat.
In Jagat, a village tucked in the narrowest of creeks, we came across a small school that seemed very organised but there were no teachers. We wandered in and eventually found an adult that asked if I want to give one of the classes an English lesson. It was an improvised attempt but I enjoyed meeting the kids and learning their names and ages. One girl stood out as she really tried hard and we could tell she took English seriously. As a father to a girl of similar age, that loves her English lessons, that moment moved me. Her name was Susila.
The views along the lower parts are incredible. Often the path is a foot wide, carved into the sheer rock, with precipitous drop on one side. Not for the faint hearted, especially if you started such section and then you hear the familiar bells of a mule caravan… retracing your steps quickly is the best option!
In a place called Yaruphant we crossed a new, very impressive cliff bridge completed only 6 months prior.
It was very important to complete this bridge as the earthquake brought down a massive section of the mountain here that rendered passing between the higher and lower sections of the Nubri almost impossible.
Entry into Tsum- the Tsum is like a closed valley. In Buddhism, it’s known as ‘Beyul’, or a refuge for achieving higher state of being. These Beyul valleys are dotted all over the Himalayas and their location was a well-kept secret for centuries (some still are), providing refuge for Buddhists and other beings when the world will come to its end.
The entry to Tsum is a tough climb to a small place called Lokpa. There’s no village, just one guesthouse that we were very happy to see, after a long slog in the beautiful forest.
The place was cramped with trekkers and the rooms tiny but it was a much-needed rest and food.
We decided to take advantage of the host’s offer to leave some unnecessary gear here, as we will anyway pass through here again on our way out of the cul-de-sac of the Tsum valley. Or so we thought, plans can always change in the mountains, as you will see, if you read on!
Even after Lokpa, the path goes down to the river, up to a ridge again, down again, over rickety bridges, under some impossible hanging ledges, so many times that the mind is completely boggled and confused. Who was the first person to venture into this dangerous place to discover it?
That thought kept bothering me all day as we walked in awe of this theatre of mountains, water, massive boulders, trees, mushrooms, eagles and very hardy people, the Tsumbas.
Only after an entire day, negotiating this ‘Entry’, we were allowed a glimpse of the Tsum.
We climbed to Chumling where the school was and I was full of enthusiasm to see the village and its inhabitants. I paid for my enthusiasm the next day as I was drained (more about that later though…)
Meeting The locals and the school project coordinator was very emotional. I met local kids that were part of the extended family that operated the Tsum guest house.
Visiting the school that afternoon, we found Kumar, the carpenter, working with his guys on the doors for the school, using a plane and some other tools that we don’t see very often in Europe any more. It was structurally finished and there was a large tent in the courtyard, ready apparently for a large Puja, which is a Buddhist ceremony to bless the place. Children run around me as I was filming and photographing. The sun was shining and light breeze was gently blowing through the Tibetan flags draping around tree tops used as masts surrounding the entire compound.
The scene was very calm and reassuring. 18 months after the disaster, you could feel the excitement of the children and adults around this community about to embrace, for the first time, their very own school and community centre. They were very proud and filled with sense of anticipation.
As the sun started to descend over the ridge forming the eastern wall of the Nubri, I gathered my belongings and went back to the Tsum guest House.
Raju, the manager gave me a silk Tibetan scarf, which is a great honour.
The next day we continued to the upper Tsum, a village called Chakong Paro was our destination and we knew we had a hard climb of 700m ahead of us. It was very hot too. Someone mentioned also, a collapsed section of path and we did not even think about it. We passed so many dangerous sections of landslides up to here. When we reached that section we realised why it scared even the locals. What we found is a washed away path, on a side of a steep cliff, with about a foot wide track made of very loose scree. The traverse was about 150-200m long, with a moderate incline. Easy enough to walk up using one pole to the left, for support, without a glimpse to the right, where the drop is a certain death.
To make the whole ordeal a notch higher on the ridiculous scale, we spotted Langur monkeys high up on the cliff face, throwing stones at us!
The upper Tsum is a gorgeous, deeply mysterious and moving place. From Chakong Paro, the Ganesh Himal is simply stunning. There is very little round but the odd little village, a monastery, a yak grazing and the open valley, like welcoming, embracing, loving arms.
After 4-5 days of walking at the bottom of the Nubri gorge, it was very welcome site, to see an open valley. Satellite reception was much better too!
The next day brought us to The Milarepa Cave. The place where Lama Rinpoche spent years in solitude, meditating constantly until his footprint was imprinted into the granite rock!
Finding the man that holds the key to the cave might prove harder than finding nirvana but we were lucky. Dhawa, my friend, was born in the little village just below the cave, we managed to find his father, a wonderful man in his 80’s now, Mr Tsumba senior provided us with delicious lunch in his first-floor lodge, that is a kind of hidden Tsum visitor centre. A book case with his son’s photography books and others, all to do with mountains, nature photography, Nepal and explorations.
After lunch the man with the precious key was found and we were able to scale the 100 metre to visit this holy site. I managed to spot a bee hive high up overhead, too far for us to reach for some precious nectar. I’d love some honey while meditating in the gorgeously tranquil cave!
Onwards. To the twin villages of Chule and Nile, which form the end of this valley. After them, it’s a slow climb towards the holy site of Mu Gumba. The old monastery at the head of the valley, close to the Tibet border, forms a target and culmination point for most trekkers here and it was for us too all along.
Another objective interfered with that plan though. I knew that Dhawa, my Tsum friend is planning to bring some supplies by Helicopter on a certain date. I asked him on my satellite phone if it’s ok for the helicopter to pick us up in Chumling and give us a ride to return to the Nubri valley, on our way towards the Larkya pass. He told me that it is possible but we’ll have to be in Chumling in two days’ time… meaning, there is no time to climb to Mu Gompa and complete the visit to the end of the Tsum.
My plan involved us trekking back towards Chumling, around 30km, in one day, achievable in 7 or 8 hours, in order to catch the helicopter, the next day; but what about our gear that was stored in Lokpa?… we thought long and hard about solutions. I rang Dhawa that assured me that a helicopter can’t land in Lokpa for us to pick our extra gear.
To the rescue came the brother-porters, Nishan and Ramesh that told me that they can walk all the way from Nile in the upper Tsum to Lokpa in one day. Around 50km!
Then, they will have to trek to where the helicopter brought us to, which is a village by the name of Ghap, 30 km again.
The next day, we said good bye to our Nile hosts, a lovely and warm family that hosted us and cooked the best Tukpah (noodle soup) in the whole trip. We left early, 7am and walked in good pace towards the lower Tsum. The air was cold at this altitude, 3330 m is the highest point so far in our trek. The hidden valley of demons on our left, with its magnificent waterfall, Ganesh Himal ruling the sky and far ahead, Buddha Himal, like a square fort. A shoulder to the elusive Manaslu. Patience, we will see it, soon!
The most eventful part of that day was our traverse of the washed path. I was nervous about it, knowing that this time we will walk downhill, unable to stop ourselves from gazing at the drop.
We had a 20 m rope with us but this was no use in a 200m traverse. Nowhere to anchor too and it will make the whole thing 20 times more dangerous. It wasn’t too bad, we walked slow and yes, it was crazy how loose the whole thing was. A trip or a slip on the scree and it’s game over. No photos unfortunately as I was simply too preoccupied to think about it.
We arrived back in Chumling around 2:30 pm, to find the ever smily Raju waiting for our arrival. He probably got a phone call from Dhawa . this time of year, towards the end of the trekking season, Chumling is lucky to get 5-6 trekkers a day and the Tsum Guest house even less so, as it stands high above the village, on a ledge, so if you climbed from the gorge, 500m below and you opted for ‘Upper Chumling’ (there’s a guest house in Lower Chumling too), then you probably got it as a recommendation from somebody, well done!
Half an hour later, at 3:00 pm, the brothers finished their express noodle lunch and left without any heavy bags, which seemed strange to them, and us. I gave them a head torch, as all they had were the torches of their mobile phone. As ever, they were quiet and very gracious and thankful. They were doing us a massive favour. We said our goodbyes and they soon disappeared down the path through the millet field and over the lower ridge, towards the torrents of the Siyar Khola below.
The next morning , the helicopter with Dhawa were supposed to arrive in the school yard/ heliport by 9AM. At 8:30, Shmulik, my companion was shouting at the top of his voice : ‘it’s here Moshe! The Chopper’s here!!’ We threw the heavy packs on our backs and raced to the top of the hill. It took us 3 or 4 minutes, A figure was cutting the field in full sprint towards us, Dhawa!! He was shouting and waiving. He got to me first as I was ahead of Shmulik. ‘’Give me your bag, the pilot won’t wait’’.
We reached the helicopter, threw ourselves in, duffles on top of us, and within a minute we were airborne, leaving behind this beautiful, peaceful valley. I managed a few images of the school from the air, the guesthouse and soon after, the pine forest. The Nubri valley was ahead, we could see the Manaslu circuit path underneath and I was thinking about the strong brothers, walking already with their duffles, towards our meeting point in Ghap.
The helicopter flight took 5-6 minutes and then landed on a ledge, with 2 houses on it. The pilot opened the door and pointed at the ground, saying ‘out!’. We threw our bags out and Kiran, our guide was telling me ‘this is not Ghap’…. There was no time to argue, within 10 seconds the helicopter was off, leaving us in silence as its rotor noise soon died out over the lower Nubri on the way to Kathmandu. We looked at each other in disbelief, here we are, on a ledge, with heavy duffles, the mountainside below the ledge seemed impossible to negotiate and our porters are heading to a complete different place! A satellite phone call to Dhawa confirmed my suspicion, that the 5 minutes waiting for us in Chumling cost us a 7 km shorter trip here. Every fuel drop is calculated here. Then we laughed.
This place was called Bihi and the map revealed, it was about 150-200 above the main trail.
Luckily, a young local guy soon appeared out of nowhere. He was hired as a porter on the spot (well, after some negotiations) for the 2 hour trek to Ghap. At least it was 9AM, a superb sunny day and a rest day ahead of us, as soon as we reach Ghap!
An old man showed us the way down from this ledge, back towards the main Manaslu path. We were grateful to him.
Two hours later we arrived in Ghap, somehow, the porter knew which Guest house we will choose, as he was there, having his tea, waiting for us. We gave him a nice tip and with a waive he was off, almost jogging back down towards his Bihi village.
The reunion with our trusted porters happened at 4pm that day. They were exhausted but true to their character, ever smiley and cheerful. We made tea and sat there, appreciating the beauty all around us. It was clear we were in the Nubri gorge again, as on both sides of the guest house, sheer cliffs were soaring skywards, leaving a strip of sky no wider than the Milky way. It was beautiful and wild. We’re literally, back on track I was thinking. Thank goodness.