Tsum, an exotic valley hidden behind the Himalayas of Nepal
My wife and I decided it was once again time for our annual trek onto remote Nepal. It was an excellent opportunity to rejuvenate our souls, secluded from the urban social distractions of Kathmandu. This was also our way of getting to know our Nepal. The sad reality is many Nepalese these days have seen other countries more than places within Nepal. If we only make it a practise of traveling within Nepal once a year, our tourism industry would be further self-reliant while Nepalese learn and enjoy the diversity and beauty within. Here is our daily account of how we ventured into the hidden valley of Chum. I bet many of you have never heard of this place which lies just behind the Ganesh mountain range that you see every day from Kathmandu valley.
Day 1: Kathmandu (1300 m) to Gorkha (Via Khaireni)
We shared a ride on a car from Kalanki as the usual microbus station at Maacha pokhari ( near New bus park) was empty possible because of Dashain, one of the biggest Nepali festival.
We reached Gorkha in 4 and half hours where we stayed at small hotel called “ chautari” near the bus park. It was decent enough. We found Gorkha to be warmer than Kathmandu. In the evening we took a steep walk up the stairs for half an hour to reach the tiny palace of Gorkha that spawned one of the greatest Nepalese born, Prithivi Narayan Shah, the uniter of Modern Nepal.
As we climbed the last stairs, we were overwhelmed with the stench of blood all on the stairs as people a few days earlier in Dashain’s 8 th day “Aastami” had sacrificed animals to the goddess Kali’s statue there during Dashain festival. I hope someday they replace these sacrifices with flowers or something kinder. It would be fitting for the one of the most powerful goddess in hinduism. We had brought some fruits which we quietly ate at the palace grounds. I was contemplating a simple question, “What motivated a small king to go on to conquer and unite into what we call ‘modern’ Nepal today and how did he build the team to make that impossible possible?
We stayed there to see the beautiful sun set over the palace. I couldn’t help but wonder how Prithivi Narayan Shah must have built and managed a ‘dream’ team in the 18th century that went to win much bigger kingdoms after another while in the south, built a worthy adversary to the southern “british empire” where the sun never set.
Day 2: Gorkha bazaar to Arughat (500m?) to Arke to Soti Khola (700m)
We missed the bus by mere minutes! Unfortunately the local bus schedules are haywire and irrelevant. We had to wait for 4 hours to find the next bus to a place called Arughat a town by the budhi gandaki rivers on the borders between Gorkha and dhading district.
Just to get the tickets we had to push our way through crowded chaos at the ticket counter. As the bus rolled on a dusty, dirt-road, cramped with people traveling for dashain. Believe me, when I say, I couldn’t even see who was sitting on the other aisle of the bus for hours. Those of us ‘fortunate’ who had seats were busy carrying the random babies in our arms because their parents were busy clinging to the bus as it swerved through an atrocious cliff one-lane roads. Finally at about 5 in the evening, tired and dust-covered, we reached Aarke just beyond Arughat where we started our official trek to a place called Soti Khola which was about one and half hours away. Just at dusk we reached Soti Khola and slept in a just finishing up newly built lodge, “Fulbari lodge” listening to the roar of the raging Budhi Gandaki river just steps away.
Day 3: Soti Khola to Lapubesi to Maachakhola (900m)
After having an appetizing tibetan/manaslu bread (think of them as an exotic rectangular form of doughnuts) with milk tea for breakfast we started off our first full day of trekking. An hour from Soti Khola we passed by nice springs just by the path where you can take a bath and easily fool around for an hour. The smaller one further up has a nice waterfall too. This was our first real day of trek, going over suspension bridges, hundreds of meters above ground, to seriously rocky trails on the cliffs under breathtaking waterfalls. The one just after Lapu Besi will hold you spellbound (just over looking a suspension bridge).
Lesson of the day: Have breakfast before you head out! It gives you enough energy to sustain yourself for a few hours. We were weak when we reached for Lapu Besi, a small gurung village. On the path we met a lot of elderly foreign tourists ( above 60 ) who dared to trek in this region. It gave us more confidence! Just before we reached Machha khola, we had a leisurely walk through the sands along the raging Budi Gandaki river.
At Machha Khola (Fish water – english translation) we stayed at Chum Valley Guest house (recently upgraded into a new lodge). If you ask the locals, they will prepare you a dish with local fish caught in the river right there.
Day 4: Machha Khola to Tatopani to Dobhan to Jagat (1300m)
Best to start the days early before the sun slows you down considerably. I recommend starting at around 7 in the morning. The highlight of the day was a 5 tier waterfall. At Tatopani, i bathed in the small hot springs (more of a bathing place). At Dobhan we had a delicious lunch of Dal-Bhat with fresh green vegetables with chutney (achhar). The walk today was filled with small to humongous water falls. The trek all day ran besides the Budhi Gandaki gorge between mighty mountains on either sides.
We reached Jagat at around 4. (The word ‘Jagat’ means a place since centuries ago, that collected tax through the ancient trade route between Tibet, Nepal and India. We stayed at the freshly built Manaslu Shanti Hotel (in upper Jagat village). The one besides it is just fine too. At Jagat we came across police station and a Manaslu conservation area check post that checks for your permits. Make sure your guide has all the documents. We saw cases where guides did not have the permit or their own identification papers (clumsy). As for us fortunate Nepalese we don’t need any permits :). All we got were surprised faces who didn’t expect Nepalese to travel (within their country).
Note: Make sure you charge your phones here. Also the only mobile phone system that works beyond Jagat is called “Sky telecom” (Nepal Telecom and NCell didn’t work beyond Jagat at the time of this writing).
Day 5: Jagat to Philim to Chisapani to Lokpa (1900 m)
We started our trek at 7:30 in the morning. First stop was a small village called Shirdibas where we had tea and coconut biscuits, the legendary trekker favorite biscuits made in Nepal that every Nepali guide, porters, travelers enjoy!
Soon after we crossed a very long suspension bridge (allegedly the longest in this region), and climbed uphill to reach a beautiful gurung village called, ‘Philim’ (1600m). We were pleasantly surprised to find wi-fi internet at a lodge there started by locals with the help of Mahabir Pun. I enthusiastically uploaded my pictures and updated family/ friends since there were going to be no mobile communication and very little electricity from now on.
We had lunch at Chisapani where a new hotel was being built. Everywhere we went, we were seeing tourism infrastructure being built. I am sure in a year or two the basic accomodation will be highly improved! Not to be missed was the enormous waterfall beyond Philim just beyond Chisapani.
After an hour from Chisapani, you come across a crossing one which takes you to the main Manaslu trek towards ‘Larke’ pass, and the other to the mysterious Chum Valley trek behind Ganesh Mountains where the ‘Chumbas’ lived, almost shut from the rest of Nepal (and the world). We took the one towards Chum Valley and immediately embarked upon a steep hair-raising walk by the cliffs with the budhi gandaki river deep below.
In about an hour and half, we reached outskirts of Lokpa and stayed at the solitary lodge called “New Tsum Hotel and Lodge” where for dinner we had one of the most delicious “Roti and Aloo-tarkari” (Chappati with potato curry).
Day 6: Lokpa (1900m) to Chumling (2400m)
At Lokpa we met a guide Laxman kaji rai, who had done Chum Valley more than a few times, and two of his german guests. We were to tag along with this group for a whole week. Unlike the earlier days, this day had a lot of steep walks up and down, even though the destination was short. We started at 8 in the morning and had a good walk through the jungles full of monkeys and beautiful green lush pathways, as always with the river besides us. On the way we managed to crawl through a recent landslide that was scary to walk through and scarier to look back at. We reached Chumling at just after noon, and stayed at a solitary hotel, Tsum Ganesh himal hotel and lodge, outside the main village.
After lunch, we decided to wash our clothes at a local river minutes away, which was deeply refreshing. In the afternoon we went up to the village to see local villages busy harvesting their crop ( special wheat ). Chumling village was beautiful at harvest season and gave us a good taste of how people have lived for long in that region, shut off from most of civilization. Chumling also overlooked another village on the other side of the gorge called, “Ripchet”. Much higher up was a village called “Chum-chet” an hour or more steep walk from Chumling. We didn’t dare climb to it, although the views would be very rewarding of possible Ganesh Mountains.
Trekking industry is the melting pot of Nepali society where guides and porters from all regions of Nepal come together to bring in fresh skills, ideas and knowledge and mix it with locals and conjure the best of Nepali hospitality. It may be a noble way to build harmony among the diverse ethnic groups of Nepal.
Day 7: Chumling (2400m) to Chhekampar (3000 m) :
We were now entering into the main Chum Valley today. As today was also going to be a walk on the shorter side, we started off at 8:30 am. It was a steep climb up to Chhekampar with the sun shining hard on us as we walked up the cliffs entering the valley ahead. Unfortunately there was not even a single tea shop on the way. Make sure to bring a few things to bite upon and plenty of water on this day’s walk.
A somewhat scary thing happened on our way up. As our group passed through a narrow trail up the cliffs, we suddenly heard a big sounds with bells just behind us. We looked back to see a Yak had fallen off the cliffs and was crushed hundreds of meters below. Obviously the horses, and yaks herding above seem to be the cause of this all. The cliff walk although sturdy may feel dizzying to many travelers.Pretty soon, with the sun bearing hard upon us, we were agonizing with thirst specially when there were no shops or houses on the way to get water! Luckily we chanced upon a fresh stream after walking for an hour uphill where we drank to our fullest and bottled some for the rest of the journey. At about 2 in the afternoon, we came up to the Chhekampar village and stayed in a hotel right in the middle of it. Today’s highlight was the breathtaking view of Ganesh and Manaslu mountains.
Also finally I could sense my mind was de-cluttered and “present”. Being with raw nature is a wonderful filter for our soul!
Day 8: Chhekampar (3000m) to Nyile (3200m)
It was a clear blue sky today. We came across zen like rock gardens on the way from Chhekampar to Nyile village. The panoramic view of the mountains were just majestic all the way around. On the way we diverted to Rachen Gumba a buddhist nunnery with hundreds of nuns. We had a fun time with young nuns there who were teasing us, coaxing for my wife to convert as monks right then and there while I was to become a monk nearby at another monastery!
As we passed another village Lar, we could see women jolly harvesting crops. Harvest time seems to be the merriest time in Chum valley. We heard it takes a difficult 11 months to harvest crops here (as compared to 3 or 6 months in the lower regions of Nepal). We also learnt here that Chum valley inhabitants call themselves “Chumba” 🙂
We reached Nyile around 3. At Nyile we stayed at a young local guide Migmar and his family’s freshly finished lodge “Mingmar’s Lodge”. It is among the first houses when you enter the village.
Day 9: Nyile to Mu Gompa (3700m) to Nyile
The first night at Nyile was a hard one as we started feeling the effects of altitude. One of the effects is the need to pee more often (especially in the cold night). Today we woke up later than usual (8ish) knowing we were only going for a short walk up to Mu Gompa at 3700 meters. As we ventured towards the Mu Gompa, we started feeling visible effects of the altitude as we were panting for breath even though we were climbing a few steps. The views of borders with Tibet and the mountains all around was breath-taking. At the top of our climb was a monastery and a bit to the side a nunnery. If you walked a few more hours from here, you could reach the high 5000+ meter passes to Tibet. All along we could see majestic horses roaming around freely while terrifying yaks carried woods from forests to households.
In the afternoon, we went to another monastery above Nyile and Chhule, an adjoining village separated by a river). From here we got a superb view all the way to Manaslu mountains to the west.
By the late afternoon, the weather started turning for the worse with clouds all wiping off the blue sky soon to be replaced by rain. We were kind of hoping it would snow so that we could see the other side of Chum valley. As we gathered around in Mingmar’s kitchen, he started telling us a story about his near death fall while collecting “yarshagumba” in the high mountains at near 5000 meters. He talked about whole village emptying during the pre-monsoon season when everyone went to collect “insects” (yarshagumba). He mentioned stories of how even pregnant women went up there and gave birth high up while collecting these quick cash generating prized “insect-fungus”. This lucrative trade of himalayan herbs seems to have given some degree of prosperity to the villagers devoid of other quick income generating activities so far. From all the tourism infrastructures being built, I am confident tourism will soon replace this highly risky unsustainable activity.
Day 10: Stuck in Nyile (3200m)
We woke up in the morning to find the rain had turned to snow and that too falling heavily. October was a highly unusual time for snow here but the villagers were rejoicing it as it brought water needed for their fields. All of us travelers were stuck looking at the snowfalls that seems to never stop falling. By the evening there was a foot of snow. At one point there was a white horse waiting for cover on our lodge doors. Another time, there were literally 2 yaks on the door steps looking for cover. So surreal !
As we were all huddled by the kitchen stove, this was a good time to ask our lodge owners about their customs, their history and how they survive up here. Mingmar told us that it has been nearly a hundred years since Killing any beings was forbidden. It is amazing that tradition still continues where no animals are killed for whatever reasons. You will be hard pressed to find any meat in Chum valley. Only freshly dead animals meat is ever eaten here.
It was bitterly cold that night in Nyile. We didn’t have sleeping bags so we had to wrap ourselves around in 2 blankets while sleeping.
Day 11: Nyile to Chhekampar
Early in the morning we started walking (or tried to) through the slippery snow back towards Chhekampar. The whole landscape looked brand new to us because of the snow cover all over. The snow melting had all our shoes soaking wet. We could see and hear small snow avalanches all over the mountains we passed by.
We had lunch at Burje and at Chhekampar returning stayed at a just finishing up hotel at Tashi’s hotel & lodge.
Day 12: Chhekampar to Lokpa (via Chumling)
Tough walk today. We had decided not to go towards Ganesh Himal Base camp because there was no real tea house for accommodation nor guarantee of food at the gompa nearby. We didn’t have sleeping bags so we felt we were underprepared for the grueling trip there. So instead we headed back towards chumling. We started early at around half past seven (after having our fill of tibetan breads for breakfast).
Because of the snowstorms, the fresh stream we had met while going up had been replaced with ice by avalanche. The view though was superb and going downhill eased our burden a bit although our knees bore the brunt. Sticks really helped us here! In between Chumling and Lokpa we again had a hair raising experience crawling up on a scary landslide on a deep river gorge hundreds of meters below.
At Lokpa we stayed at the same lodge Chum Valley guest house. Our host Lobsang Lama was a gracious man, soft-spoken and humble who had built a nice place there.
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