Day 1: May 24, 2014 (Saturday) Kathmandu -> Arughat via local bus
We were woken up early as usual at the Avalon guest house in Kathmandu. Extraordinarily loud bells begin ringing just outside our window each morning at 5:30 am. In a sleepy haze, we decided to consider the racket as our alarm clock and do the last minute preparations to head for the first destination on the Manaslu Circuit. We finished packing our porter bag and our day packs and locked up the rest of our belongings to leave at our guesthouse. Our guide, Tek, and porter, Krishna, would be arriving around 7am so that we could head to the local bus station to catch an 8am bus to Arughat.
You may be asking why we hired a guide and porter to go hiking when we have done our fair share of backpacking solo. The answer is: we had to. The Manaslu region and TSUM Valley are restricted areas which require special permits and a minimum of two Trekkers with a guide. We were told a porter is also required. Whether or not that is true, we are glad to share the weight of our gear for 20 days of hiking. We also are able to provide one last job to a local at the end of the season before the monsoon hits. Besides, Krishna is awesome! We may be able to meet his wife and twin daughters in his home town tomorrow.
This trek will consist of 20 days of hiking and will top out on Larkya La pass at 5,213 meters (17,103 feet)! Due to government restrictions, this area sees only about 2,000 tourists a year, half of which come in October. This is compared to its next door neighbor, the famous Annapurna Circuit that now has paved roads and sees over 100,000 trekkers a year and Everest base camp with over 25,000 trekkers/year. We wanted to trek in a more remote, less touristy area, so Manaslu it was!
Once our bags were packed, we headed to the rooftop of our guesthouse to cherish every last morsel of our free breakfast: toast, scrambled eggs, mango juice, oatmeal with milk and banana, and coffee/tea. Krishna met us on the roof to introduce himself for the first time. He kept telling us how happy he was. We like to think it is because we are young, friendly folk and not the old grumpy clients he is used to. Or maybe he is always that happy.
The local bus station scene was pretty typical: dusty, smelly, complete with several beggars, busses that should no longer be in service, and bathrooms that have never heard of Clorox, or even soap.
After 30 minutes of hanging out on the bus, meeting Tek’s sister-in-law, and contemplating whether or not the bus we were on would make it a mile down the street let alone the 8 hour journey to Arughat, we putted out of the station.
The first hour and a half of the journey was not too bad aside from the fact that we passed an overturned truck and another truck in a ditch within the first hour… At least we were on paved roads and didn’t stop too much to pick up and drop off passengers. I was impressed when we stopped just a little over an hour into the journey for a toilet break. It is always nerve-racking to take a bus in many parts of Asia because you never know when (or if) they will stop. I emerged from the bus to follow the “ladies only” sign and found five steps leading down to the “toilet”. Now, I’ve seen some pretty horrific toilets in the past 5 months, so I thought nothing would shock me anymore. I was wrong! I turned the corner to find a concrete floor with metal sides, no roof, and no door. The concrete floor was apparently the toilet and was covered with urine and feces. Not to mention, this concrete toilet shack was just beneath the hill where the bus sat and I can imagine everyone in the bus can see right down in. At his point you must assume I saw this and walked away. I wish. From personal experience, I knew it could take anywhere between 2 and 6 hours before we stopped again, so I took a deep breath and went. An old Nepali woman walked in on me awkwardly using this foreign toilet, so I finished quickly and used practically an entire bottle of hand sanitizer, just to make myself feel slightly cleaner. So, if you ever feel like complaining about that “unclean” restroom at a rest area on your next road trip down I-95, take a second and think of me and realize it could be much worse!
We continued on the paved road for a bit longer, passing village after village with mothers bathing their children in their front yard as well as adults bathing themselves. Maybe Saturday morning is shower day? All the while, the scenery was beautiful, covered in rivers and rice paddies in the most vibrant shade of green. Shortly after, we turned into a dirt road full of potholes and inadvertent “speed bumps”. It was at this point that we noticed two things. One – the bus didn’t have any power steering and two – the “assistant bus driver” who we thought was an extra hand on board to collect money, was actually there to hang out the door of the bus to make sure we didn’t go over the edge…comforting!
The 7.5 hour bus ride ended up being the most exhausting ride we ever took. That says a lot when we have taken several 22 hour bus rides! The bus was open air, so we had to cover our faces the whole time to avoid breathing in dust. Locals got on and off every few minutes and packed the aisles completely. Some had big items with them like floor fans and others had crying children. John was actually almost sat on at one point by a lady (on purpose!) until Tek shooed her away! Rain started a few hours in and the assistant driver hopped out to cover luggage on the roof with a tarp. He proceeded to ride on top of the bus for a while as well. The entire bus swayed back and forth the whole time, leaving us feeling like we had been on a boat all day when we finally got off. The one major close call was when we were going rather quickly around a corner on the dirt road (only big enough for one vehicle), and our driver blew his horn to warn of his presence and as we turned, we came face to face with another truck! Both vehicles slammed on their brakes and missed a head on collision by less than a foot. Definitely the closest call ever.
We were extremely relieved when the bus stopped and Tek announced, “last stop!”. We then walked for about 20 minutes to reach our first lodge (very basic), and enjoyed a much needed shower and some dal baht and chow mein for dinner while we talked to Tek and Krishna and listened to all sorts of stories from Tek’s 28 years of guiding.
Tomorrow, the real trekking begins!