Friday, 24 November 2017

Back home in Whistler... and back skiing

Heading down "Zig Zag" (Blackcomb Mountain, Nov 23, 2017)
A long trip home from Hua Hin (Thailand): 3.5 hours bus to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, 3 hours flight to Taipei, 10 hours flight to Vancouver, and finally 2.5-hour drive up to Whistler (plus all the waiting in between). But finally home.

Thought we'd be too jet-lagged to get up the mountain, but decided fresh air and sun (well, a little) should help.

Managed 5 runs, even all the way to the bottom (a good start to the season).

But quite the change from 30°C in Thailand!

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

MANASLU CIRCUIT OCTOBER 2017 (DETAILED TRIP REPORT)

On the way to Bihi Phedi -- the mountains beginning to show

We have posted all our photos of our Manaslu Circuit trek on an album on our FLICKR account:

https://flic.kr/s/aHsm6kSqRb



INTRODUCTION:
For our 14th (David) and 12th (Michelle) treks in Nepal, we chose to complete the Manaslu Circuit. Initially, we had considered adding the Tsum Valley, but decided that with only 21 days for the trek, there would be no wriggle room should there be any "hiccups" (weather delays, stomach and/or respiratory illness,general fatigue, injury, etc), which we know from experience often happens while trekking. Additionally, we weren't so sure we wanted such a long trek. In the end, we were very glad we didn't add Tsum Valley (we heard the lodges were crowded and worse than those on the Manaslu trek). [FYI: David did the Manaslu trek way back in 1993 as a camping trek, starting in Gorkha and ending in Besisahar. On that trip, there were significant weather problems (i.e., snow) with the Larkya La/Pass; something for which this pass is infamous.]

Leaving Larkya Phedi/Dharmsala at 5 am in new snow

David, Padam (guide), Michelle & Dawa (porter): Freezing in -10 deg C at Larkya La/Pass (5160m)
The trek starts a very low subtropical elevation (700m) and follows the "Budhi Gandaki" (old woman Gandaki) river almost to its source high up in the mountains. For the first few days, we found the trekking quite tiring, made much worse by high temperatures (over 30°C) and hot sun; it was hard to believe that in 1-2 weeks we would be in fresh snow and sub-zero temperatures. The river has incredibly steep valleys, which means a lot of trekking up and then trekking back down; very frustrating (but it was far harder back in 1993!). It is a very culturally diverse trek, eventually ending up in very Tibetan areas. In order not to have to backtrack, one has to traverse the 5160m Larkya La pass. Although not as high as the 5400m Thorung La, the Larkya La is far more isolated, is slower to ascend (at least, when going the usual counter-clockwis direction) and seems to get much worse weather. The day one crosses the pass is a long day (assuming one is able to begin at the lodge-tent camp of Larkya Phedi, which is not always open); the descent from the pass quite steep (though we found it not so bad) and seems to take forever to get to the lodges at Bhimtang (which are wonderful after the terrible "lodge" at Larkya Phedi and even the not-so-great lodges of Sama and Samdo). The walk after/below Bhimtang is wonderful, and 1-1.5 days of walking takes you to Dharapani, on the Annapurna Circuit (where transport may -- or may not -- be available).


Start of the trek on the road under construction

OUR TREK:
We wish we could be more positive, but we really didn't enjoy this trek. 

On the (very) positive side, the vistas throughout the trek are stunning. The Budhi Gandaki river and its valley never ceases to amaze (and, yes, frustrate) you. Such an active, seemingly angry (if this is possible) river and such steep canyons with villages high up on the hillsides, eaking out an existence.

The Budhi Gandaki river


Higher up, as the many himal ranges come into view, the mountains become the attraction. First properly seen in Lho, Mt. Manaslu is beautiful (perhaps even more beautiful and certainly more dramatic when it is again seen from its other side below Bhimtang).The many other mountain ranges, such as the Larkya Himal, are pretty stunning too.


sunrise on Mt. Manaslu (from Lho)

A walk above Samdo
The walk below Bhimtang: Beautiful!


Manaslu Himal, from the Dudh Khola valley
Unfortunately, for us, this trek had many negatives. 

First, and foremost, the trek (at least in October) is definitely overcrowded. There are several places where there are more trekkers than there are lodge rooms or beds. This is made far worse by very large groups taking up most of the spaces. With significantly greater resourses, these groups are able to send runners 1-3 days ahead to reserve rooms for their groups. A small group (or a couple such as us), at times, is left with little or no choice (either a terrible lodge or worse, trek on to the next "village"). The "continuing on" solution doesn't work when there is no place at the next stop. Serious "choke points" for these lodge shortages occurred especially at Sotikhola (that was a surprise on our first night), Deng (we called it "Dung", not really worth staying at, and the 2 lodges there are not-so-great), Samagaon, Samdo and Larkya Phedi/Dharmsala.

Arrive later in Samdo? IF you're "lucky", this is the "lodge" you get... (3 beds in a tiny room barely fit for 1)

The lodge shortage problem (or worry about it) put a real negative effect on our trek (finally going away as we got over the pas to Bhimtang; there seemed no shortage of lodges from Bhimtang on). Our guide always worried about it,. We always had to leave early to try to get in earlier to get a room. We never knew for sure until we arrived. [Indeed, the day before arriving in Samagaon, we had a lodge call ahead to reserve 2 rooms there; 1 for us and 1 for a single trekker. When we arrived at the lodge in Sama (early, at about 10am), we were told the single trekker could not have a room. We eventually found a 3-bed room so the single trekker could join us. Calling ahead doesn't always work; something we also found last year at MBC.] To add insult to injury, we found the quality of most (though not all) of the lodges to be only poor to fair (and well below the quality of lodges in the Annapurna areas or Everest) and their cost higher (see below). More than one of the lodges we stayed in were frankly terrible. Call us softies, but we like good lodges. In the end, we decided the best solution, for those who really must do the Manaslu Circuit, is to have a porter (or two) and bring a tent. They then never have to worry (and, of course, are welcome, indeed pressured, to eat in the lodges). 

The trails on the Budhi Gandaki side of the trek also had serious negatives. We've done many treks in Nepal, and are pretty used to trails with steep drops. But almost always, these are good footpaths. On the Budhi Gandaki side of the Manaslu trek, we were confronted many times daily with bad trails (sometimes active landslides) where a mis-step would easily mean certain death (if the fall didn't get you, being swept down the Budhi Gandaki river definitely would do the job). Being constantly confronted with this wears you down. Any possibility of having to trek back out the same way we came in (for instance, due to snow closing the pass, altitude illness, or whatever) was a constant concern nagging us. No wonder there seemed so many helicopter "rescues" coming down from up high. 

We found the many large groups to mostly be antisocial. We sought out smaller lodges, but when in a lodge with a moderate-large group (6-20 trekkers), we found they rarely talked or interacted with us (even when we tried to start a conversation). Generally, as a couple trekking, we didn't exist to these large groups. Too bad we couldn't feel the same way them. In contrast, we did meet and have good times with a few groups of 1-3 trekkers, including Karni the 70+ year-old Israeli woman, Jim the sometimes cranky (who wouldn't be on this trek) but very funny violinmaker and his 2 friends from the USA, the sweet young Russian woman trekking only with a guide who didn't talk to anyone (groups ignored her) until we got her talking, and also a few other couples. In contrast to us, the large groups had very strict schedules; none seemed to have any extra days for weather or illness issues. In Samdo, we were quite shocked to talk to a guide who stated he had just shipped 3 of 14 trekkers down by helicopter, had just doubled the dose of diamox for a 4th trekker in question, but hoped now all the weaker trekkers were now weeded out. All the money and hopes these people had invested in their trek and this was what they got? The guide then commended us for adding an extra acclimatization day in Samdo; hmmm, why didn't he set that up for his group? Guess it keeps the helicopter companies happy. 

Finally, we we also disappointed with the poor job the "Manaslu Conservation Area Project" seemed to be doing. Enviromentally, there was little use of LPG gas for cooking; wood was mostly used (and deforestation was obvious). Each village (or collection of lodges) had a garbage dump at the entrance or exit (sometimes both) to the village, complete with much plastic trash, especially plastic water bottles (purchased/disposed by thoughtless trekkers). And, of course, there is the new road, creeping inexorably towards Tibet (and it will make it there not so far in the future). Culturally, the building of lodges either replaced or hid older buildings, so that often one only saw a collection of lodges and no village. And, as noted already, these were not exactly "beautiful" lodges. And yet, this is a "restricted trekking area",a main purpose of which is (was) to protect the unique cultures present within. This protection is clearly not working.

Garbage beside trail in Samdo
To conclude, we found this to be a difficult tiring trek, with difficulties in getting lodge space and relatively poor quality of the lodges. Too many trekkers (especially large groups) for too few beds. As the numbers below indicate, it is also a more-expensive trek. Perhaps we are getting older and softer, but we prefer the trails and lodges in the Annapurnas and Everest regions. The beautiful vistas of the Manaslu Circuit trek (and they are beautiful), for us, do not make up for the poor (and dangerous) trails, crowded low-quality lodges, and the costs and complications (permits, transport, guide, etc) of the Manaslu Circuit. We won't be back.


OUR ITINERARY:
Having crossed high passes in Nepal many times (including: the Kang La, Larkya La, and 4x over the Thorung La), we knew we wanted an additional day of acclimatization (added at Samdo) as well as some shorter days of trekking.
  • Day 1: Transport by jeep from Kathmandu to Sotikhola (~8 hrs). Overnight Sotikhola [700m]
  • Day 2: Trek to Macchakhola [869m]
  • Day 3: Trek to Yaru Bagar [1170m]
  • Day 4: Trek to Philim [1570m]
  • Day 5: Trek to Bihi Phedi [~1990m]
  • Day 6: Trek to Namrung [2630m]
  • Day 7: Trek to Lho [3180m] (half day; stopped for acclimatization and for rain)
  • Day 8: Trek to Shyala [3500m] (1.5-2 hrs walk)
  • Day 9: Trek to Samagaon [3520m] (1 hour walk, essentially an acclimatization day)
  • Day 10: Trek to Samdo [3875m] (~2.5 hrs easy walk)
  • Day 11: Acclimatization day in Samdo
  • Day 12: Trek to Larkya Phedi/Dharmsala [4460m] (2.75 hours walk; heavy snow begins; snow stops in evening with ~10cm)
  • Day 13: Trek over Larkya La [5160m] to Bhimtang [3590m] (9.75 hrs, including breaks, leaving at 5am after two large groups "break trail"; very cold -10°C at top; snowing heavily for last 45 minutes before Bhimtang but well after pass; 5-8 cm snow by evening)
  • Day 14: Trek to Gowa [2515m] (most beautiful walk of the trek; 6 hrs including lunch)
  • Day 15: Trek to Dharapani [1950m] (2hrs walk; after much confusion and misinformation, we find a jeep to share (already booked by 2 other trekkers) leaving ~1pm. Arrival in Besisahar @6pm (just getting dark).
  • Day 16: Besisahar 830am: Padam (guide) and Dawa (porter) take microbus to Kathmandu; we take microbus to Pokhara

COSTS:
Compared to the Annapurna Circuit, Poon Hill, and Annapurna Base Camp treks (and perhaps even Everest Base Camp), the Manaslu Circuit is a relatively expensive trek.

Permits and Guide: First, there are the added costs associated with Manaslu being a "restricted" area, thus requring a restricted area trekking permit (essentially, US$10/day/trekker). Additionally, one must get a Manaslu Conservation Area Permit (2000 rupees/trekker), in addition to the ACAP permit (2000 rupees/trekker). No TIMS required if trekking (or jeep) down from Dharapani to Besisahar. Finally, there are the costs of the required guide and need for a minimum of 2 trekkers in the group (if single, it is sometimes possible to pay 2X the permit fees for a "ghost" trekker).

Our small "group" at Lho: Dawa (porter), Michelle, Padam (Guide), David

Transport: It is possible to get to the trailhead at Sotikhola using 2-3 busses. The road after Dhadingbesi is very rough (definitely 4WD; makes the road to Syabrubesi for Langtang trek seem like a paved highway; we are very glad we opted for jeep transport). At the end of the circuit, one can walk out to Besisahar or take transport down. There are shared jeeps but none were available after 10am in Dharapani (indeed, it seemed iffy at any time). We got lucky and found a jeep to share with two other trekkers.

Daily costs: Daily costs (lodge, meals, very occasional pot of hot water) were surprisingly high on the Manaslu Circuit. Our Manaslu daily costs (lodge & food) were 33% higher than those for our 2016 ABC trek. As already noted, there is a definite shortage of beds compared to the number of trekkers, thus lodges have little or no competition and so all charged 500 rupees/night for a double room (this increased to 600-700 rupees above Sama). Similarly, food prices started high (3500-4500 rupees per day for 2), and became outrageously high as one neared the pass (6500 rupees at Dharmsala!).

Costs Breakdown (for 2 persons): [1C$=80 rupees; 1US$=100 rupees]
Daily costs:  Total: 58,800 Nepal rupees [Daily @14.5 days: 4055 rupees; C$50.69; US$40.15 per day]
Permits: 30,220 rupees
Guide and one porter (16 days): 80,000 rupees (excluding tip)
Transport to Sotikhola: 20,000 rupees
Transport Dharapani to Besisahar: 8000 rupees
Transport Besisahar to Pokhara: 1000 rupees
Hotel and food (including beers) in Besisahar: 3600 rupees
Guide/porter transport to Kathmandu: 2000 rupees

Total for Manaslu trek (2 persons): 212,990 rupees [C$2,662.38;  US$2,130]
(excluding Kathmandu & Pokhara costs)

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Manaslu Circuit trek completed (survived)

Freezing on top of Larkya La (-10°C): David, Padam (guide), Michelle & Dawa (porter)
    
Started with a gruelling 8-hr dusty 4WD jeep drive.

First couple days overheated in 30+ degree C and hot sun, eventually "cooling" to fresh snow and -10°C on 5106m Larkya pass. Every day trekking presented us with numerous opportunities where a mistep or stumble could mean certain death (especially walking across steep landslides going 100s of metres down into the Budhi Gandaki river). Trek was over-crowded with large groups and not enough lodges in many places. Mostly, lodges were not so great. 

On the other hand, every day the trek provided us with fantastic vistas.

15 days later, ended with gruelling, bumpy, steep-dropoffs 4-hr jeep drive. 

Maybe we're just getting too old, but we found this trek to be particularly tiring and not so enjoyable.

On the plus side, we are now very fit (well, except for bad colds).  

Now relaxing (recovering) in Pokhara. Off to Kathmandu tomorrow then Thailand. 

More-detailed post about trek to follow with photos (when we get better internet).