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OUR Himalayan Travel BLOG

Welcome to our blog and Social Media Page

 

As well as features about our Nepal & Bhutan tours, we'll also include articles of interest about Nepal& Bhutan too.

By Snow Cat Travel, Oct 30 2018 04:06PM



How do you see a wild snow leopard? Nepal has maybe 500 snow leopards. Snow Cat Travel snow leopard treks are strictly limited and with rules and conditions.


Read on...


The Snow Leopard has a special role as Messenger between the realms of the Gods and the realms of Man….


These words and the text we added to this snow leopard photo above were sent to us recently by a Snow Cat Travel client inspired by her custom tour of Nepal and Bhutan.


Once classified as Uncia Uncia…the snow leopard is now Panthera Uncia


But, the one name that truly most befits this beautiful animal is “Ghost of the Mountains“….and that’s because they are rarely seen! And they are pretty hard to see too. More on this later…


In 25 years of trekking in the Himalayas, I’ve only ever seen a snow leopard twice!


I’m pretty certain (or at least I’d like to believe) that quite a few snow leopards have watched me and indeed many others who trek into the higher reaches of the Himalayas.


Hidden high up and from a safe, distant vantage point….just like this wonderful painting by Tenzin Norbu depicts….



n fact the best snow leopard sighting I had was just a complete fluke. I was resting after a hard days trek in the Kangchenjunga region of Nepal….to tell the truth, I was lying on a boulder in the sun away from camp (to get a bit of peace and quiet from my trekking companions) and heard a bit of a “kerfuffle” above.


I hadn’t actually noticed that there were some Himalayan Blue Sheep (aka Bharal also quite a rarity) edging their way across the steep, scree laden mountain side…but, a snow leopard clearly had and the “kerfuffle” I heard was it giving chase, or rather the sheep making a fast getaway.


For me, the sighting was all over in a matter of a few seconds….such was the speed of the attack, prey and hunter in hot pursuit were around the hillside and gone from sight…a lot of dust kicked up and the last thing I saw was the snow leopard’s tail “swishing about”. Too far away, too sudden and all too fast to even think about “where’s my camera?”


Ghost of the Mountains


If any animal deserves this title….it’s the snow leopard. Actually “just below the snow leopard” is arguably more accurate. Of course these big cats do venture above the snow line. They have very large territories and in the Himalayas, as any high altitude trekker will tell you, you’re always likely to encounter snow in gullies, traversing slopes etc.



Yes, there really is a snow leopard in this photo
Yes, there really is a snow leopard in this photo

But, as you can see from the image above, the snow leopard’s coat affords it incredible camouflage against rocky mountain sides. Neither can a carnivore live off snow, or the leopards prey for that matter….wild sheep, goats, hares are typical of a snow leopards diet and they indeed need vegetation.


So, it’s just below the snow line, which of course varies with the seasons that the snow leopards prey graze and thus where the snow leopard usually hunts.


As you can see from the photo below, a snow leopard isn’t so well camouflaged against the snow.



Can you see me now?
Can you see me now?

It is of course perfectly equipped to deal with snow….large, fur coated paws, with claws for grip where necessary…..something many mountaineers wish they had!


Sorry…I digressed. Back to the “Ghost of the Mountains”. To the few and hardy people who live permanently high up in the Himalayas, they might never see a snow leopard in their entire lives. To them it was some sort of ghost….a creature of magic.


Sure, they would encounter some tell take signs…..pug marks (paw prints) in the snow….but no real knowledge of who or what made them. Snow leopard prints in the snow have long being cited as claims for the existence of the Yeti!


Related Article: How to see a Yeti



Yeti encounter....yeah right!
Yeti encounter....yeah right!

Those that graze livestock in high alpine pastures certainly knew that something would come down from the mountains and kill some of their flock.


Nowadays, the locals now know there is such a thing as a snow leopard, but before then it was a “ghost”.


I’ve heard similar, but I was once told the tale of a village in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal, where the locals claimed that a man in their village would transform at full moon into a wildcat and then kill livestock belonging to the villagers.


It’s a great story and who doesn’t like to believe in the supernatural?


Of course the culprit was most likely a snow leopard using the additional light of the full moon and feeling bold and hungry enough for some easier pickings.



Remote, high mountain wilderness-the realm of the snow leopard
Remote, high mountain wilderness-the realm of the snow leopard

Indeed such conflict between herders and the snow leopard still exists and is a serious threat to the snow leopards survival as a species.


It’s only one…..but one of only a few, but just recently a very badly injured snow leopard was found in Mustang and brought to Jomsom in Nepal. Its injuries were consistent with those of a weapon….sadly it could not be saved and died.


If there is any positive over such a tragic loss…it was the outrage from many in Nepal that this had happened.


Great efforts are underway in Nepal in respect to snow leopard conservancy.


Indeed right this very minute…WWF Nepal are conducting a further study in the remote region of Dolpo.



Snow Leopard research in the Himalayas ain’t easy
Snow Leopard research in the Himalayas ain’t easy

I’ve known “Tashi” for many years now. Tashi was born and bred in a remote village close to a “snow leopard hotspot”. As a young boy, he grew up with snow leopards helping his father as a shepherd, then he became a mountain guide (which is how I first knew him) and now has his own established trekking business.


He tells me that the best way to protect the snow leopard is to get the local people on board.


Education and compensation.


He firmly advocates that through education the local people grow to value the fact that they have snow leopards “on their doorstep” and that as such it’s a privilege not something to fear. Harmony in co-existence.



A snow leopard “hot spot”. Remote Dolpo region, Nepal
A snow leopard “hot spot”. Remote Dolpo region, Nepal

But, you can’t expect a livestock herder already living off maybe less than $1 a day to be happy that he is losing his livestock and therefore his livelihood. If something is threatening your livelihood, surely you’d do something about it?


Here compensation plays a part and thus to reduce the number of snow leopards being killed due to human conflict and retribution killings efforts are being made to compensate herders for any losses due to snow leopards. A sort of insurance fund.


But, more importantly herders are being educated as to how to better protect their livestock from a snow leopard attack, in the form of fortified corals.



One of these “Thar” would be a good meal for a hungry snow leopard
One of these “Thar” would be a good meal for a hungry snow leopard

Not only that, but it’s common sense that if there is a healthy abundance of wild prey for the snow leopard to hunt, it’s less likely to prey on livestock. This is an apex predator after all.


Poaching, as with many wild animals is a problem and the snow leopard is no exception.


Then there is snow leopard tourism.


Just how can you see a wild snow leopard?


Well, snow leopard watching has already started to enter the arena of tourism. I’m well aware that some of the big adventure tour operators offer as such in places like Ladakh and Mongolia. The terrain in both lend themselves better to 4WD access, as well as the snow leopards often being found at lower altitudes than in Nepal, as the permanent snow line in Nepal is often around 17,000 feet.



Snow Leopard tracks at over 16,000 feet up in the Kangchenjunga range
Snow Leopard tracks at over 16,000 feet up in the Kangchenjunga range

Tourism if managed responsibly can be of great benefit.


However, in the Nepal Himalayas there is no easy way as to how you can see a wild snow leopard. Basically you have to purposefully go and look for it!


That’s easy to say. Much, much harder to do in practice. It means venturing into the high and remote ramparts of the mountains. This is the realm of the snow leopard. You’re looking at some very challenging, high-altitude trekking and seriously wild camping and all with that bitter, bitter cold.


Safe to say, it’s not for everyone. That’s probably not a bad thing. You also need deep pockets too, such an expedition is going to be very costly and there is NO GUARANTEE that you will see a wild snow leopard.



Snow Leopard in the Himalayas, taken by a Snow Cat Travel client
Snow Leopard in the Himalayas, taken by a Snow Cat Travel client

Consequently an element of “it depends” is an important factor. A lot of hard work and also a lot of luck and good fortune too. Most serious wildlife watching enthusiasts know this all too well.


You’ve probably seen the “how we filmed it” sort of thing that accompanies most TV wildlife documentaries, and in the case of snow leopards the poor camera man left to freeze for endless days/weeks in a wildlife hide and no sign of a snow leopard….probably no signs of any other life!


Flexibility and time are key. Otherwise you might as well do an “a to b to c to d” trek, but like I said….25 years trekking in the Himalayas on “a to b to c to d” treks and just two brief snow leopard sightings for me.


So, a pre-planned “a to b to c to d” trek is neither use nor ornament.



With temperatures far below zero, camping wild she Himalayas is tough
With temperatures far below zero, camping wild she Himalayas is tough

Time is needed. Time to first get into the Himalayas (not easy), time to then trek into “snow leopard country”, time to acclimatise as those pesky snow leopards are used to the high altitudes….your body isn’t……and time to look for signs and as any wildlife watcher knows a lot of time waiting and searching and more often than not nothing happens.


The “Ghost of the Mountains” doesn’t appear by magic and it may well be the most miserable, harsh conditions you’ve endured in your life as you’re not designed to live in the realm of the snow leopard….but, the snow leopard most certainly is!


Now it just so happens that as Snow Cat Travel we do “sorta kinda” operate snow leopard treks. But, don’t misconstrue this as “an advert for snow leopard treks”….we’re not talking big business here…...very few people have that combination of financial resource, time and the desire to endure physical hardship…..and quite possibly with no results..…that’s searching for snow leopards for you. Actually we are very selective …only two very small private parties a year….oh and with rules and conditions too.


Chances are we’ll say “no”.


I’m not saying where in Nepal…..no second guessing…..it’s not Dolpo and it’s not Kangchenjunga.


Snow Leopard Trivia


Another name, although rarely used, for the snow leopard is “The Ounce”


Snow leopards don’t “roar”


Nepal has an estimated population of 300-500 snow leopards, which is actually more than the number of tigers in Nepal (current estimate 235)


Although usually found between 3,000m-4,500m altitudes, snow leopards can range up to 6,000m!


There’s no record of a snow leopard ever killing a human


A snow leopards range can be up to 1,000km2….no wonder they are so hard to find!


A snow leopard can jump 10m in one (big) leap!


Snow leopard’s are mostly solitary.….unless its mating time


Climate change is possibly the greatest long term threat to the snow leopard


Snow leopards have light green or grey eyes, most big cats have yellow/orange eyes


Snow leopards are most active at dawn and dusk


There’s a “snow leopard vodka”.…15% of all profits being donated to the Snow Leopard Trust



Originally published on the Snow Cat Travel WordPress blog













By Snow Cat Travel, Oct 26 2018 03:00AM


Upper Mustang, Nepal
Upper Mustang, Nepal

Stuart Butler – Author of the Rough Guide to Nepal and Lonely Planet Trekking in Nepal recently went hiking into Upper Mustang, Nepal with Snow Cat Travel


His account of this Mustang trek has now been published in The National Magazine, UAE, and this article is reproduced below…


On one side, the palm-sized rock was smooth, flat and uninspiring, but turning it over revealed a hypnotic swirl of circular patterns criss-crossed in ribs. It was the fossil of an ammonite, and scattered haphazardly across the ground around me were others. An ammonite is a type of a long-extinct marine mollusc that disappeared from planet Earth about 65 million years ago. So, what was it doing in this unlikely spot 4,000 metres above sea level?



Upper Mustang Trek
Upper Mustang Trek

That I was able to hold in my hands signs of life from the age of the dinosaurs was remarkable enough, but what made it even more astounding, was the realisation that the spot at which I now stood had once been the bottom of a tropical ocean. I took in a deep, laboured breath, and looked around me at towering sandstone cliffs rising hundreds of metres. They were pocked with caves like some kind of fairy fortress. Some of these caves had frayed old rope ladders leading up to them, and inside were galleries of ancient Buddhist art. Above and beyond these castles of sand were the black frozen walls of the Himalayas.


The story of the formation of the Himalayas, and the reason I was holding a marine fossil in my hand, is all to do with plate tectonics. About 50 million years ago, the northward-­moving Indian plate crashed into the Asian plate, and in the process, formed a belt buckle of mountains that now stretch (as the Himalayas and neighbouring ranges) halfway across Asia. The desolate, wind-blasted valley in which I stood had once been at the bottom of the sea that had separated India from the rest of Asia.



Trekking in Upper Mustang
Trekking in Upper Mustang

We were in Nepal’s Upper Mustang region and halfway through a three-week trek. A restricted area requiring special trekking permits, Upper Mustang is a little thumbnail of Tibet in Nepal. Unlike Tibet itself, where the Chinese have done much to suppress traditional Tibetan culture, in Upper Mustang, the culture has been allowed to thrive. After several days walking through desert canyons where the rock is tinged with natural primary colours, we’d reached the near mythical walled “capital” of Lo Manthang. With its narrow alleyways, high whitewashed walls and numerous monasteries painted in blood red, this is a town of dreams. A town where red-robed monks read from 100-year-old parchment texts, where wild-faced nomads gallop up to the city walls on white stallions, and where a royal family still lays claim to the central palace.



Lo Manthang
Lo Manthang

From Lo Manthang we’d walked southward again through a landscape of wrinkled cliffs with fluted chimneys and past oases of poplars coming into leaf. We hadn’t just walked with single-minded focus, though. We’d allowed time to be tempted off the main trail by minor side paths that led to high-altitude yak pastures. We’d visited cavelike Buddhist monasteries where the air smelt of burning juniper. We’d ridden stumpy and hardy mountain ponies over grasslands where marmots stood on sentry and blue sheep scarpered up distant scree slopes. We’d sipped salty yak butter tea in the black felt tents of Tibetan nomads and followed scientists as they’d scoured remote valleys looking for signs of one of the most mythical of Himalayan creatures: the snow leopard.


Eventually, we’d crossed a half-dry riverbed full of ammonites and then clambered right up into the mountains themselves, where we’d crossed dauntingly high passes and joined up with groups of other trekkers on the popular Annapurna Circuit. Then we’d veered westward to the remote, half-frozen Tilicho Lake before crossing down to the regional centre of Jomsom, via a difficult, rarely trekked pass that had required ropes, crampons and basic mountaineering skills. Although we traversed many different landscapes and climate zones and met a broad cross section of people, the stories they told us were always laced with a sense of the impossible.



The arid landscape of Mustang
The arid landscape of Mustang

Even that ammonite I’d held in my hand had been rich in Himalayan folklore. A couple of days after picking up the fossil, we found ourselves in the Muktinath temple complex. Like so many places in the Himalayas, Muktinath is holy to both Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists. The reason for this reverence is the presence of an eternal flame, 108 sacred water springs and the numerous shaligrams, or ammonites, found in the area, which are considered a representation of the Hindu god Vishnu. One of the most important pilgrimage spots in the Himalayas, Muktinath attracts scores of people every day. Lakshmi, a bearded Indian sadhu (holy man), whom I met at the temple, was one of the more devout. “About 35 years ago, when I was around 12 or 13,” he explained to me, “I left home and started travelling from one holy place to another. I haven’t seen my family since I left, but I don’t believe in blood relations, so I’m not bothered.”


I asked him about some of the places he’d travelled to. “I’ve been all across India, Nepal and the Himalayas. I spent many years living in a cave and meditating at the holy Mount Kailash on the far side of the Himalayas [in modern-day western Tibet]. In the end, though, I left. There are too many people there now. Too many soldiers, too many police. It was time to move.”



High pass crossing on the Upper Mustang Trek
High pass crossing on the Upper Mustang Trek

The faith that drove Lakshmi to turn away from his family, along with his story of adventure, might seem extraordinary to most of us, but some Himalayan tales require an even bigger leap of faith. Two of our baggage porters were brothers, and one evening, after a long eight hours walking, we set up camp inside a small stone-herder’s hut. After dark, as the temperature plummeted, we all huddled together and shared stories.


The conversation soon moved on to ghosts and magic, and one of the brothers told us about a man in their village who had the ability to transform himself into a type of wildcat. In this feline form, the man would slip like a spirit though the moonlit hills, attacking and eating livestock. In the mornings, he would be found back in his house in a deep sleep with blood-stained hands. Everyone in the village knew about his power, but nobody really knew what could be done about it. Eventually, the man died, but, so the brothers insisted, one of his sons has inherited the same powers and the slaughter of livestock continues.



Snow Leopard, the real "Ghost of the Mountains"
Snow Leopard, the real "Ghost of the Mountains"

I’d been ready to dismiss the brothers’ story as just another tall tale, but then, on the last day of our trek, I saw with my own eyes an object so unlikely, it defied reason. We’d arrived at our camping spot in an alpine meadow after dark and thought that we were the only people there. But, when we woke up on that final morning, we discovered a number of temporary- looking wooden structures and some ancient, weathered tents nearby. The occupants were just waking up as well. A ragtag-looking lot, they weren’t trekkers, shepherds or holy men. They were treasure hunters. The treasure they were after, though, wasn’t of the gold and rubies sort. No, the thing these men and women were after was even more valuable.



Yarsagumba - more valuable than gold!
Yarsagumba - more valuable than gold!

One of the men in the camp called me into his hut and, opening a small cloth bag, he revealed something remarkable: a handful of dry, shrivelled wormlike creatures. It was yarsagumba; half-animal, half-plant, a bizarre fusion of a caterpillar and a parasitic fungus. Highly valued in Chinese traditional medicine as an aphrodisiac, yarsagumba is worth more than its weight in gold, and every year around June and July, hundreds of Nepalese leave their villages to head up into half-frozen alpine meadows in search of it. And if a caterpillar can be a treasure, and the Himalayas the floor of an ocean, then who is to say that up here, in these oxygen-depleted heights, people cannot turn themselves into cats?


Want to know more?


Read about Stuart's latest adventure with Snow Cat Travel as he tackles the Manaslu Circuit Trek and delves deeper into the Yarsagumba trade.


See our Mustang Treks & Tours


This article was oroginally published on the Snow Cat Travel WordPress blog


By Snow Cat Travel, Oct 22 2018 02:41PM

Manaslu Peak at Lho on the Manaslu Circuit Trek
Manaslu Peak at Lho on the Manaslu Circuit Trek

Both are classic Himalayan treks, both are “circuits”, both are challenging, both are spectacular, both involve crossing a 5,000+m pass, and both in recent years have seen the encroachment of dirt roads.



On the Annapurna Circuit Trek
On the Annapurna Circuit Trek

These two circuit treks have “prima facie” a lot in common. But, they also have some differences too.


So, which to choose? The Annapurna Circuit Trek or the Manaslu Circuit Trek?


The BIG DIFFERENCE between the two is the volume of trekkers.



Trekking the Manaslu Circuit
Trekking the Manaslu Circuit

For many years now the Annapurna Circuit has been one of the most popular treks in Nepal (the other being the Everest Base Camp Trek). It’s “sorta kinda” world famous, it’s there on many people’s “bucket list” and is often marketed as the “best trek in Nepal”, which we disagree with anyway, but that’s another story (see our Top 5 Treks in Nepal article).


The Annapurna Circuit


But, it’s true to say that the Annapurna Circuit is a well worn trail. And with good reason. Like most things that are popular, they are popular because they are good!


What about “the Kali Gandaki road”?


Well, the classic Annapurna Circuit is trekking up the Marsyangdi Valley to Manang, over the Thorung La (5416m) to Jomsom via Muktinath and then down the Kali Gandaki Valley. From here some choose to trek out by staying in the Kali Gandaki and exiting at Beni, some add the uphill climb to Poon Hill and then exit via the Modi Khola Valley.



Feeling good on the Annapurna Circuit Trek
Feeling good on the Annapurna Circuit Trek

Several years ago a dirt road was constructed all the way up the Kali Gandaki Valley to Jomsom and indeed as far as Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang (see our Into the Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang – A Himalayan Road Trip Adventure article).


There then followed a bit of an outcry that the Annapurna Circuit was now “ruined” as a result of there now being this “road”.


So, let’s get things straight. This “road of sorts” has not ruined (in our opinion) the Annapurna Circuit. The road is not a motorway, or even a trunk road for a start. It’s basically a single track dirt road. Of course vehicles use it, that’s what roads are for, but it’s not exactly busy.



The Kali Gandaki Road isn’t busy….good for downhill mountain biking too!
The Kali Gandaki Road isn’t busy….good for downhill mountain biking too!

We mountain biked this road all the way down from Jomsom fairly recently (and a lot of fun it was too) and encountering a vehicle was rare…..more like an event!


Also in order to keep the trek as “real” as possible, other trails are used. Sure, there are times when you’ve got to trek on the road, but the hiking descent of the Kali Gandaki is far from ruined. The scenery is as spectacular as ever for a start.



Spectacular Himalayan scenery on the Annapurna Circuit trek
Spectacular Himalayan scenery on the Annapurna Circuit trek

Hiking between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri (both 8,000+m peaks) is still pretty special.


But, if you have your doubts, you can always skip the Kali Gandaki descent and fly back to Pokhara from Jomsom– see our “Best of the Annapurna Circuit Trek”, which does exactly that.


Or you could spice things up a little (variety is said to be the spice of life), and just as we did, turn the Annapurna Circuit into a multi-activity adventure and turn the road into an adventure opportunity. Trek over the Thorung La to Jomsom, bike down and then raft out. (See our Ultimate Annapurna Adventure).



Trekking the Annapurna Circuit
Trekking the Annapurna Circuit

What about the Manang road?


Well, yes….there is now a dirt road that reaches all the way to Manang.


So, the reality is that the Annapurna Circuit has experienced a “road pincer movement”, with only the 3 day trek from Manang to Muktinath (via the Thorung La) being the only section where there isn’t a road. In fact the road from Muktinath down to Kagbeni has a metalled surface.



On the Annapurna Circuit Trek descending after crossing the Thorung La
On the Annapurna Circuit Trek descending after crossing the Thorung La

But as with the Kali Gandaki descent, the Marsyangdi ascent isn’t ruined. There are other trails, but again some sections of the road can’t be avoided. Again we’re not talking about a busy road either…..its not like everyone in Nepal actually has a vehicle for starters!


At the time of writing both roads don’t seem to have had a detrimental affect on the sheer volume of people still wanting to trek the Annapurna Circuit. It’s as popular, spectacular (and as challenging) as ever. In fact, there’s the suggestion that numbers are actually increasing. So maybe the presence of a road has had the opposite effect…..a comfort back up?



The literal high point and crux of the Annapurna Circuit-The Thorung La
The literal high point and crux of the Annapurna Circuit-The Thorung La

What has most certainly not changed is the challenge of crossing the 5416m Thorung La, one of the highest trekking passes in the world and one that still remains the crux of the entire trek i.e. if you can’t cross it you’ve gotta go back.


The Manaslu Circuit


Although we said at the very beginning that both the Manaslu Circuit have things in common, we also said that the number of trekkers on the Manaslu Circuit is far less too.


The “rules” for this trek are a little different. For this one you need a special permit, as the Manaslu region remains a restricted area. Indeed at one time it was completely off-limits to trekkers.



Descending from the Larkya La on the Manaslu Circuit
Descending from the Larkya La on the Manaslu Circuit

You also need a licensed guide and you can only get the special permit through a licensed trekking agency.


The agency has to obtain your permit “in person” i.e. it has to take your original passport and passport photo’s to the permit issuing office in Kathmandu (when it’s open). No scans are permissible (which you can do for Annapurna Circuit).


You’d be surprised how many people don’t make an allowance for obtaining this special permit in their plans.



Birendra Tal on the Manaslu Circuit
Birendra Tal on the Manaslu Circuit

So, there in itself is one reason why the Annapurna Circuit is busier. Actually two reasons…one being that you can trek the Annapurna Circuit independently (and many do), the other being that as trekking “took off” in Nepal, there was no Manaslu Circuit (it was off-limits) and thus the Annapurna Circuit became established as a trekking favourite.


It’s reckoned that tens of thousands of people trek the Annapurna Circuit each year…..only around 2,000 trek the Manaslu Circuit.


So, less trekkers means a couple of things.


The obvious (and surely a positive) is less busy trails. A greater sense of being remote and wild….a more authentic and enhanced Himalayan experience over all.



Probably everyone trekking the Manaslu Circuit takes this “bridge shot”
Probably everyone trekking the Manaslu Circuit takes this “bridge shot”

The other being a less developed trekking infrastructure.


Actually the first time we “did” the Manaslu Circuit not long after the area was opened up, there were no trekking lodges/tea houses…..it was wild camping every night. Indeed (although more expensive) some trekkers still prefer to camp on this trek.


However, there are now trekking lodges throughout this trek. Not as sophisticated as the ones in the Annapurna’s, but not as basic as they were either….and basic they most certainly were.


Just as the Annapurna Circuit has its high pass, so does the Manaslu Circuit. In this case the Larkya La – 5135m and just like the Thorung La, the Larkya La is the crux of the entire Manaslu Circuit trek. If you can’t cross the Larkya La, you’ve got no choice but to retreat from whence you came.



Manaslu Peak from Samdo on the Manaslu Circuit Trek
Manaslu Peak from Samdo on the Manaslu Circuit Trek

Although slightly lower than the Thorung La, at 5,000+m a couple of hundred metres is neither here nor there and arguably the Larkya La presents a slightly greater challenge.


The Larkya La seems to be a bit more exposed to the elements of weather too and can be snowbound completely during the winter months, or be affected more by snow storms at any time.



Buddhist culture on the Manaslu Circuit
Buddhist culture on the Manaslu Circuit

We’d say that the Manaslu Circuit is a tougher trek than the Annapurna Circuit, not by much though.


But, given the choice we’d always trek the Manaslu Circuit vs the Annapurna Circuit.


It just feels more authentic, wild and remote…..like Himalayan trekking should be.…a different dynamic, sensation and experience…..and in our opinion, vastly superior.


Yarsagumba on the Manaslu Circuit Trek with Lonely Planet’s Stuart Butler


We also think the scenery is more spectacular. That’s not to say that the scenery on the Annapurna Circuit isn’t spectacular…..it’s the Himalayas, how could it possibly not be spectacular?



Trekkers on the Manaslu Circuit
Trekkers on the Manaslu Circuit

Perhaps what makes us feel that the scenery and the experience of the Manaslu Circuit is better than the Annapurna Circuit is better is quite simply selfish…we’re not sharing the views and the experience with hundreds of other trekkers…..less is in fact more!


That also makes the cultural experience of the Manaslu Circuit better too and surely on any Himalayan trek meeting and interacting with the locals is a fundamental part of the experience too.


With less trekkers, it’s far from touristy…..the Annapurna Circuit is also known as the “Apple Pie Trail” after all…less tourists usually means a more authentic culture, so the Manaslu region still feels culturally intact and special as a result.



High and wild on the Manaslu Circuit Trek
High and wild on the Manaslu Circuit Trek

Roads


Well, we did say at the outset that both circuit treks had experienced the encroachment of dirt roads.


So, the Manaslu Circuit now takes several days less than it used to as a result. In fact the “Manang road” that we mentioned in the Annapurna Circuit section has affected the Manaslu Circuit, as you would have “trekked out” on the Annapurna Circuit trail over 4 days. Now, you can just drive back to Kathmandu the moment you hit the Manang road.


The “trek in” is now a couple of days less too as a dirt road means you can reach Soti Khola in full day of driving from Kathmandu.


Still, the Manaslu Circuit has ten days of wild trekking with no road presence….the Annapurna Circuit just three.


But, maybe the Manaslu Circuit should be renamed the “Manaslu Horse-Shoe” as it’s not really a circuit anymore, but then again neither is the Annapurna Circuit.


Enjoy this three minute video of the Manaslu Circuit Trek




Originally posted on the Snow Cat Travel WordPress Blog

By Snow Cat Travel, Oct 15 2018 10:23AM



Mustang Jeep tour to Lo Manthang-At Kagbeni
Mustang Jeep tour to Lo Manthang-At Kagbeni

Relishing my authentic Italian coffee and with the free Wi-Fi I check to see if Manchester United won earlier today (they did!).


It’s a bit of a surreal moment, as I’m sitting in a coffee house (complete with real Italian Espresso machine) at over 9,000 feet in the Himalayas looking right into the “Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang”.



Gazing into Upper Mustang
Gazing into Upper Mustang

In stark contrast to “my world” of Italian coffee and Wi-Fi, across the cobbled street a couple of elderly local women with weathered faces and wearing traditional Tibetan style clothing are gossiping, whilst drying apples naturally under the sun….just as it has always been done. The old and the new!


I’m in the Tibetan influenced village of Kagbeni, as far as you can go into Upper Mustang without a special and rather costly permit (which I have) and am heading for the fabled “city” of Lo Manthang.



Having a natter and drying apples in the sun
Having a natter and drying apples in the sun

It’s a journey I’ve made before around 20 years ago. Back then the journey was very different and it’s a fascination in itself to see how some things have changed and some things haven’t.


Way back when, my journey from Pokhara to Lo Manthang had to be on foot. And, what an arduous, tough journey that was. A trek up through the lower Kali Gandaki Valley to reach Kagbeni and then even more challenging trekking over a few 14,000+ foot passes in the high altitude, arid wilderness landscapes of Upper Mustang to reach Lo Manthang. Oh….and then back again of course too.


Back then it took a few weeks to make the return journey following the ancient trade route that saw caravans bringing salt from Tibet to India and with exotic spices going the other way…..now it takes just a few days.


The difference being a road (of sorts), one that still seems improbable. Well, to me anyway. But, there it is….a rough and ready dirt road right between the massive peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri and then reaching ever higher and deeper into the wild and hostile landscape of Upper Mustang.



Typical village homes of Upper Mustang
Typical village homes of Upper Mustang

Mustang (formerly the Kingdom of Lo) was famously “off limits” until 1992. Lying “behind” the Himalayas on the high Tibetan Plateau, it remained culturally intact and is very different to the rest of Nepal.


For the “handful” of foreign tourists who venture into Upper Mustang only the purist might rue the coming of the “road”. If you really want, you can still trek to Lo Manthang and by and large avoid the road. Still, the majority of locals I spoke to on my journey were positive about “the road”. Most felt being better connected to the world has greater benefits.


Sure I’m going by road this time (my legs say “no” to hard trekking nowadays), but it’s one heck of a road trip and most certainly still ticks the “Himalayan adventure” box. Being bounced around in a jeep isn’t what I’d call a luxury.



Meeting the locals is the best bit
Meeting the locals is the best bit

The advent of the road may have brought some change, but what hasn’t changed is the spectacular landscapes, nor that sensation of being high, remote and wild. OK, so the monks in some of the isolated Tibetan Buddhist monasteries I visited along the way might have mobile phones and with Internet access we can be “friends” on Facebook (and why not?), but the prayers and rituals still seemed (and are) the same as the ones I witnessed all those years ago.


The “magic” of Mustang, it’s arid and barren scenery with weird, wind eroded rock formations and cliffs remains. The beauty too. The pigmented colourations of the landscape-ochre, brown, grey, red, yellow and dotted with tiny, traditional Tibetan style villages where the locals are still just about able to eek a life in this often inhospitable region.


The ‘jewel’ of Mustang, the fabled, walled ‘city’ of Lo Manthang. It still looks and feels ancient.



Typical Mustang village and landscape
Typical Mustang village and landscape


This is a road trip of countless memorable experiences.


So, let me share this journey from the sub-tropical lowlands, up through Himalayan giants and further into the Tibetan Plateau with you.


From colourful and chaotic Kathmandu I took the 25 minute flight to Pokhara-Nepal’s premier tourist destination. Actually, I was surprised how much Pokhara had grown.…more hotels, cafes and bars than ever seemed to be sprawling and jostling for space along the “Lakeside Strip”.


But, Pokhara still retains that laid back feel and it was good to reminisce and unwind by the lake with a lassi at “The Boomerang”, enjoy those superlative views of Fishtail and the Annapurna range in Pokhara’s balmy climate as soothing music wafted through me.



Pokhara and Annapurna range views
Pokhara and Annapurna range views

At the crack of dawn the following morning I jumped into my Land Cruiser, managed to grunt “Namaste” to my driver and guide as we headed out of Pokhara and “kissed goodbye” to tarmac as we entered the Kali Gandaki River Valley near the nondescript town of Beni.


“This is alright” I thought to myself as we steadily bounced along the dusty road, skirting the river banks. A bit dusty, but not as rough as I was expecting. Very pretty too with the vegetation reflecting the sub-tropical climate, banana trees, oranges and the like.


Soon we began to slowly and steeply climb, climb and climb and are greeted by the sight of mighty Dhaulagiri and the Nilgiri Himal. But, before I knew it the climbing (for today anyway) was almost over as the road became the now broad almost endless cobbles of the river bed.



The arid high lands of Upper Mustang
The arid high lands of Upper Mustang

Perched high above the valley was our overnight halt and some unashamed comfort at the Thasang Lodge. To be honest, I didn’t need to “rough it” any night on this road trip adventure. What had been some pretty dire overnight halts when I’d trekked this route had taken advantage of the road and upped their game.


Using “luxury” would be a bit OTT, but having a proper bed and private shower and W.C. every night was a welcome bonus this time around.


What wouldn’t be OTT would be describing the views from the lodge at Thasang as being anything other than sensational, whichever direction I cared to look. The towering peak of Dhaulagiri and its spectacular icefall and across the valley to the Nilgiri’s and Annapurna.



Dhaulagiri from Thasang
Dhaulagiri from Thasang

What had taken four days walking for this amazing scenery was now just 6 hours. Fantastic!


Awake bright and early to catch the first shafts of sunlight illuminating the summit of Dhaulagiri and a relatively short driving day ahead. Firstly to the village of Marpha, an immaculately clean village and where the first signs of a Tibetan influence become apparent. Apple orchards too, so a good excuse to try some delicious apple pie.


As well as being where Hindu Nepal starts to become more Tibetan Buddhist, it’s around here that you also notice that the previously densely wooded and forested mountainsides start to thin out before disappearing completely.



Tibetan Buddhist influences in Upper Mustang
Tibetan Buddhist influences in Upper Mustang

That’s the thing with a “vertical” road trip..…you go up through climactic zones rather quickly. Yesterday I’d started in a semi-jungle zone and ended up in an alpine forest.


Now it was about to change to a high altitude desert as we approached Jomsom, just a short distance from Marpha. It’s here that the monsoon rains reach no further, hence Upper Mustang is arid from this point.



Nilgiri Peak from the rooftop of my lodge in Kagbeni
Nilgiri Peak from the rooftop of my lodge in Kagbeni

But, it’s pretty mind-blowing to be able to see it visibly and so abruptly. It’s almost like 10 metres down in one direction you can get rain and vegetation, 10 metres up……no rain and just desert.


And into that desert we go. A short and mostly level drive to Kagbeni and that real Italian coffee I started with! I’m amused to find that a local entrepreneur has opened a “Himalayan McDonalds” in Kagbeni….YakDonalds!


Anyway, here I am on the edge of the “forbidden zone” and as we leave Kagbeni the following morning, the sign at the police check post proclaims that “entry is illegal beyond this point without a special permit”.


This special permit costs in excess of $US 500 and it’s a contentious matter as to where that money actually goes, still the police man who checks our permits is friendly and obliging and it is a pleasing sensation to be back in the Kingdom of Lo once again.



The gateway to the Forbidden Kingdom of Lo
The gateway to the Forbidden Kingdom of Lo

We head for the village of Charang and the road surface is pretty good…gravelly, but all in all not too bad to travel on. But, we’ve got to cross the river and there’s no bridge. Thankfully the river level isn’t too high and we’re able to cross with relative ease in the Land Cruiser…..a bit like an Upper Mustang Drive Thru car wash!



Drive Thru Car Wash-Mustang style!
Drive Thru Car Wash-Mustang style!

As we’re making good progress and as we could all do with a bit of a leg stretcher, we take a slight detour and then a hike of around 45 minutes to take a look at the sky caves at Chungsi.


There are maybe around 10,000 sky caves in Mustang and as you might guess from their name, are not easily accessible. They date back around 2,000 years and some were used for burials, but also as safe places to live during troubled times. These ones at Chungsi don’t require climbing skills and ropes to access them (I wonder how the locals managed?), just a head for heights on the rough, stone steps.



Mustang Sky Caves
Mustang Sky Caves

Reaching Charang (Tsarang) at 11,600 feet it’s now time for an essential acclimatisation day. Even though I’m not trekking, there are still some high passes to drive over before reaching Lo Manthang and Charang is far too nice a place to hurry on from.


Charang is very typical Mustang. Just 100 or so traditional style homes with stone walls and flat timber roofs, painted in ochre, red and white and that blend so sympathetically with the surrounding landscape.


There are numerous colourful chortens scattered across the village and it’s dominated by a massive, crumbling five-story dzong, a Tibetan-styled fortified palace.



Mani Wall-Upper Mustang
Mani Wall-Upper Mustang

The following morning I paid a visit to Charang gompa, a monastery of the Sakya sect built in 1395. It hosts the biggest library in the Kingdom of Lo and is adorned with 15th century frescos on the walls.


Wandering around the village with my guide we “discovered” that two families were butchering a Yak and were invited to observe. Fortunately I’m not squeamish. Life here is hard, so nothing is wasted….”nose to tail” is the order of the day. Nothing is wasted.



Yak sausage making….the Mustang way
Yak sausage making….the Mustang way

When we arrived the Yak had already been slaughtered….a female Yak evidently as I noticed a foetus put to one side. The choice cuts had already been made and stacked into two piles. It turns out that the Yak belonged to one family, so they get one pile and the other family helping get the other pile. Both families were now busy making “sausages” from the entrails. The Yak’s head was in a bucket...I have no idea what that would become!



Anyone for Yak’s head soup?
Anyone for Yak’s head soup?

My newly found friends finish their tasks and kindly invite us into their home for some Yak butter tea. It’s fair to say that this is an acquired taste (a bit rancid), but I feel privileged to be invited into their simple abode (I was curious anyway) and my poorly disguised attempt at pretending to enjoy the Yak butter tea is thankfully met with much laughter from my hosts.



Get the kettle on for brew!
Get the kettle on for brew!

The final drive to Lo Manthang itself is relatively short and as we reach the top of a 13,000 foot pass I’m greeted with extensive views as far as Tibet and there, far below lies the “walled city” of Lo Manthang.


City is of course stretching it a bit…..it’s essentially a small village of less than 180 homes, but it is steeped in history as the “capital” of the former Kingdom of Lo. Mustang ceased to be a Kingdom when Nepal became a republic and the last “King of Mustang” died in 2016.



Lo Manthang
Lo Manthang

Walking around Lo Manthang, it all seems so very familiar to me and I’m pleased to see that the 15th Century Royal Palace (now former) is still standing having withstood the devastating earthquake that rocked Nepal in 2015. Sure, there are now a couple of rather decent guest houses (hurrah!), but that mystical feeling still remains. Not least as the four Gompa’s; Jampa Lhakhang, Thubchen, Chodey and Choprang are still here.



Kids in Lo Manthang
Kids in Lo Manthang

Wandering through the maze of narrow stone flagged alleyways with whitewashed mud and stone walled homes I come across women spinning their prayer wheels and making braids in each others’ long hair. In a more open area some of the locals are collecting water from the fountain, others trying to wash and preserve their modesty at the same time. An elderly lady sits outside her home combing wool, whilst another is collecting goat dung with a brush, to use as fuel for her stove at home. Not much has changed.



Rush hour in downtown Lo Manthang
Rush hour in downtown Lo Manthang

Later in the evening I follow the locals as they walk around the city walls (clockwise of course), prayer wheels spinning and mantra’s being chanted.


The following day I head out of the city on foot to wander around the painstakingly, back breakingly ploughed fields. Not much grows up here. Winters are bitterly cold and neither is there much water in this dry, harsh climate other than what can be irrigated. A major feat in itself up here.



Making new friends in Upper Mustang
Making new friends in Upper Mustang

Barley and buck wheat look to be the main crops, so not surprisingly buckwheat pancakes were part of tonight’s dinner and with some very welcome buckwheat brandy as my much needed “Mustang central heating” I slept like a tiger, even if it was chilly.


Sadly it was time to turn around and although it is theoretically possible to drive all the way back to Jomsom in one very long, gruelling day I chose to break the journey into two and travelled only as far as Chusang, which gave me time to walk to the very picturesque, ancient village of Tetang.



Tetang, Mustang
Tetang, Mustang

Now, there’s one bonus of having to return from “whence I came”. It may well be the same route, but no longer are the Himalayas behind me, they are in front and what a sight they are as the snowcapped giants form my far horizon as a seemingly impenetrable huge wall of rock and ice.



The Himalayan “wall” comes back into view
The Himalayan “wall” comes back into view

And, rather than bother with the bumpy, arduous two day drive back down the lower Kali Gandaki Vally to Pokhara, at Jomsom I hopped onto the 18 minute early morning flight and although sad to no longer be in Mustang, it was actually rather nice to feel warmth once again.


You really do have to admire and respect those that call Upper Mustang “home” and endure all the hardships that this still remote, isolated, barren mountain wilderness brings.



Mustang is a hard place to live
Mustang is a hard place to live

General stuff about Upper Mustang


Climate and other considerations: Being a high altitude desert it can and does get bitterly cold, especially during the winter months when the region is blighted by cold, strong winds emanating from Central Asia. Don’t under estimate the strength of the sun’s rays up here, even if it’s cold at these altitudes the sun rays are very strong, so use a high strength sun blocker.


When to Go: Unlike the rest of Nepal as Upper Mustang lies beyond the monsoon rain shadow, this is a part of Nepal that arguably is best to visit during the summer/monsoon months, as it isn’t as cold as winter. That said the journey up to/from Jomsom can sometimes be tricky during the monsoon.


Mustang Permit/entry requirements: A special permit to enter the restricted area of Mustang beyond Kagbeni costs in excess of $US 500 per person for ten days, only obtainable via registered operator. You must also be accompanied by a licensed guide. So, you really need to use the services of a specialist Nepal operator like Snow Cat Travel. The permit is for a minimum of two persons travelling together. If you’re travelling solo you will have to pay for two Mustang permits and a little extra to “facilitate” the permit process.


Notes: The author of the article (who wishes to remain anonymous) travelled to Lo Manthang on a custom made Mustang Jeep Tour to Lo Manthang with Snow Cat Travel.



This article was originally published on the Snow Cat Travel WordPress Blog



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