From Gorkha, the ancient royal city of the Gurungs and the origin of the illustrious Gurkhas, the normal approach to the twin-turreted, fairy-tale-castle-like Mount Manaslu follows the trade route alongside the Buri Gandaki through its deep gorge gouged between high rock precipices, comparable to those in Yosemite or the Dolomites, to the remote Tibetan settlement of Samagaon sheltering at the base of the world's eighth-highest mountain.
Making a detour to cross the Rupina La beneath the spectacular Baudha Peak is well worthwhile.
The route winds up a broad, terraced ridge through fields of golden grain and brightly painted farmhouses with elaborately carved, wooden windowsills and balustrades. Fine views unfold of the wide, white sweep of the Annapurna Himal along the western horizon.
"Busnos", ( please sit down ) invited Khadke, one of our kitchenboys, at a shady chautaara ( stone-built platform for porters to rest their loads ) beneath a grove of great burr and pipal trees.
Beyond the last of the small, farming settlements a complex route on faint trails through deserted wilderness eventually gains the snow-covered pass beneath a tremendous ridge of rock and ice extending up to the pointed summit of the Baudha Peak and on to the adjacent Himalchuli.
Plunging down through deep, soft snow we entered the beautiful, tranquil Chuling Valley - uninhabited and seldom visited. Behind us the huge east face of the Baudha Peak soared sheer above the chaotic ice-falls of the Chuling Glacier. Ahead, the serrated summits of the Ganesh Himal seemed to float in an azure sky completely disassociated from their rugged, forested foothills.
“I want to retire here as a shepherd “, announced Horst at breakfast one morning before we descended to the timber-roofed, stone-built dwellings in the compact Gurung village of Ngyak in the Buri Gandaki valley.
Harvesting was in progress. Everything was being done manually. In the stone-walled fields the ripe, golden grain was being cut with hand scythes to be carried to the flagstoned farmyards and thrashed with long-handled, wooden flails.
Beyond Ngyak we entered “Little Mustang” - the isolated upper valley of the Buri Gandaki with its small communities of Tibetan peoples. Great walls of mani-stones ( stone tablets inscribed with the Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” - hail to the jewel of the lotus - and numerous, multi-tiered chortens ( stone-built shrines ) lined the trail. Some of the larger chorten had archways decorated with colourful, intricate thangkas ( religious paintings ).
" Shim, shim ", ( give me something ) entreated the brown-faced, ruddy-cheeked youngsters swaddled in heavy clothing against the bitingly cold wind. Giddah ( large eagles ) soared overhead while side-valleys afforded views up to the lofty snow peaks of Himalchuli and Ngadi Chuli.
Suddenly, on rounding a bend, the mighty pyramid of Manaslu, dazzling white in the bright sunshine, appeared in full view towering above the pine forests. Continuing beneath great snowfields and vast scree slopes across extensive yak pastures alongside the Buri Gandaki, now much reduced in size, we reached the main village of Samagaon, with its small gompa ( Buddhist monastery ), and continued on to the cluster of flat-roofed dwellings at Samdu - one of the highest permanent settlements in the Nepal Himalaya.
From Samdu there is a low pass into Tibet. Local traders can cross the border freely but not so trekkers. All groups must be accompanied by a liaison officer.
We now climbed due west into a side-valley leading up to the Larkya La - the crux of the route. A disconsolate group of Americans was coming down. One of their members had AMS ( Acute Mountain Sickness ) and they had been unable to cross the pass.
Mt. Pang Puchi
In dim, pre-dawn light we trudged up rough moraines beneath a black, jagged ridge. At 5,200metres the Larkya La is neither a difficult ( assuming good weather ) nor a particularly high pass but I was suffering from the altitude and every step was a major mental and physical effort.
Finally a snow slope led up to the col bedecked with brightly-coloured prayer-flags. Above us loomed the Larkya La Peak - a fine 6000metre summit not requiring a climbing permit. Onwards a treacherous, icy path led across the wind-swept pass.
The descent on the far side over rough, loose scree was much steeper than on the ascent and height was lost rapidly as we scrambled down into a savagely glaciated valley enclosed by towering snow peaks.
Encamped in a magnificent location in yak pastures beneath the enormous, rock and ice cliffs of Mt.Phungi - an outlier of Manaslu - a superb vista extended up the glacier to the pinnacles and pyramids of the Peri Himal.
Next morning a cairned path led down over moraines into the densely wooded valley of the Dudh Khola beneath the dramatic western face of Manaslu with its great rock ridges enclosing vast snow fields and huge hanging glaciers.
Two days later we reached Thonje in the Marsayangdi Valley on the trade route to Manang - the first leg of the Annapurna circuit and familiar territory from my very first himalayan journey.
( The Commentator, The (Glasgow) HERALD, Saturday 11th December 1999 )