A Different Spin
Tsum valley is located north of the Ganesh Himal mountain range in Nepal close to Tibet. In these remote borderlands of the high Himalayas, several valleys are said to be Beyul – hidden valleys which are only open to those with a pure mind and heart. According to legend their locations were kept secret on scrolls hidden inside caves, monasteries and stupas. Buddhist texts describe valleys reminiscent of paradise.
Tsum valley is one of the remotest and least visited regions in Nepal. Only a handful of trekkers a year venture this far off the beaten track. Pioneering mountain biker Mads Mathiasen decided to go one step further and be the first person ever to ride there.
After permit hassles and an hour figuring out how to fit four porters, Mads, myself, a mountain bike and all our gear into the back of a Land Rover, we finally leave Kathmandu late in the afternoon. The plan was to travel light and move fast, me on foot and Mads on his state-of-the-art mountain bike. We would take four porters to help carry the gear; a couple of tents, sleeping bags, camera equipment, a stove and some basic food. By the time our jeep arrived in Arughat – the starting point of the Manaslu and Tsum valley treks – it was already dark and our little expedition wouldn't start until the next day.
Our trail takes us along the sandy banks of the Buri Gandaki river. Shortly after we set off in the morning a handful of school children scamper after us to see the bike. Mads does some wheelies and they all scream with excitement. We slowly ascend to Jagat, a clean and charming stone-paved village. The valley gets narrower and more-sparsely populated as we climb higher, and snow-capped Sringi Himal (7180m) peeks out as the trail winds its way between steep valley walls. We get to Dobhan where there's a basic home stay where we can sleep and fill up on Dhal Bhat (lentil soup and rice). Mads hoicks is bike up the narrow stairs and leaves it in the safety of the little room.
The next day we continue as far as Ekle Bhati, and Mads is making far better time than me. The carbon-framed bike is barely 12 kilos, so even when he's carrying it, he's moving at normal trekking pace. Once he hits the downhill sections he streaks ahead and spends plenty of time waiting for us to catch up.
Once into the Tsum Valley the landscape changes noticeably to a mix of pine trees and grassy slopes. The trails are some of the best in Nepal – they’re quiet, well kept and free of hoards of trekkers. It’s a blissful place to be and anybody that likes walking and doesn't mind a simple lifestyle for a few days can go. A big draw is the real lack of any altitude issues. The very end of the Tsum valley is barely 4,000m, and it will take a quick walker at least a week to get there, climbing gradually every day.
We get to Chumling, the first village in the valley and it's clear that Tsum is a special place. Pretty little stone cottages dot the valley, beautifully carved mani walls (stone slabs inscribed with Buddhist mantras) and chortens mark the trails. Nowhere in Nepal can you see finer examples of these ancient relics of Buddhism than in the Manaslu region and Tsum valley. The local Tibetans that inhabit the valley are all wearing traditional dress and jewellery. It seems as if very little has changed here since they first arrived in the 1950s. Mads – who has 15 years experience biking and trekking in Nepal – is stunned by the quality of the trail itself and describes it as 'the best he's ever seen for mountain biking'. There's no doubt the route up to valley would be tough for the slightly less hard-core, but Mads simply suggests that most people should take an extra porter to help with their bike. This also provides employment to local people and generates more income for the area.
Physically, it's not an especially hard trek. In fact it's one of the easier treks in Nepal in terms of altitude, ups and downs and general trekking skills. The path is in good condition and there are few steep climbs. Even on the way up, Mads is able to ride many sections. Whenever we reach some steps or something too risky, he simply hops off and slings the bike over his shoulders.
The only consideration for some is the lack of facilities. For me this is a plus, I would swap wide open wilderness and pristine culture for a packed tea house any day. For some however, the thought of a week or two without being able squat over clean porcelain is too much to bare. There are no lack of dramatic views and big mountain vistas in the Tsum Valley and there are also plenty of little side-trip options to explore: Ganesh Himal Base Camp is surely stunning although we didn’t have to time to venture off there and there’s another final little loop beyond Mu Gompa to the Tibetan border.
The following day the valley opens wide, the trail flattens, and towering mountain walls soar high above us. Mads is in his element on the subtlety sloped terrain. He can move in half the time it's taking me and the porters, leaving him plenty of spare time to explore side trails.
We see many stone-walled pastures, grazing land, mani walls, chortens and a stupa as we approach Chule. Its architecture frequently reflects the more ancient styles and symbols of Tibetan Buddhism. A large powerful waterfall cascades from high above to the valley floor far below and we camp on a grassy bank just upstream of the village.
We happened to be in the Tsum valley during the Tibetan new year, at which time villagers move around in the valley and spend a fair amount of time drinking Chhaang – a strong alcohol made from barley. It certainly wakes you up at 9 o'Clock in the morning. On the last day of climbing we pass a lot of very long mani walls and see groups of villagers on their way to see their neighbours. One slightly intoxicated man arrives on a horse and within a few minutes a race is set up. However, partly due to his inebriated state and slightly small horse, Mads wins with ease. For his victory we all got treated to some home-brew and fried snacks. The locals take great interest in Mads bike and confirm it is a first for the valley.
There are many reasons to go to Tsum (whether on foot or on wheels): The lure of the remote. The intact Tibetan culture. The lack of bright Gore-Tex jackets filling up the trails. The wonderful welcome and genuine hospitality of the local Tibetan people who aren’t corrupted by groups of tourists with $ signs on their heads. Where else in Nepal can you go where the locals are singing in the fields rather than trying to tempt you into their lodge?
We climb up the final stretch of zig-zagging trail that leads to Mu Gompa, the last settlement in the valley. A few stone houses surround an ancient monastery on a windswept hilltop. A smiley monk who lives there year-round greets us with hot tea and warns us not to go near his giant dog, which is chained to a wall.
Mads leans the bike up against a stone wall and collapses on the steps. The view back down the valley is stunning and Ganesh Himal towers above us, spin drift spiralling from the peaks. The name for the range comes from the Hindu deity Ganesha, depicted in the form of an elephant. In fact, the south face of Pabil (Ganesh IV) slightly resembles an elephant, with a ridge that is reminiscent of an elephant's trunk. It is an awesome view, and Yangra – Ganesh I (7,422m) – is clearly visible. There are three other peaks over 7000 meters plus some fourteen others over 6000 meters.
Once we'd finished our tea at the monastery we left the bike and scrambled up a little hill to the north which leads to a series of chortens on a rocky outcrop. It takes us barely an hour to make the first chorten but the view changes dramatically. The full extent of the Ganesh Himal stretches out and the views back towards Tibet are breathtaking. I hadn't seen a single other foreigner during my whole time in the Tsum valley, and as I sat perched on a rock somewhere above Mu Gompa with a view as sublime as any I'd seen in the Himalayas, I thought about the streams of people making their way up to Everest Base Camp, and wondered why? The Tsum valley truly is Beyul – a hidden paradise.