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Tsum Valley, Nepal: Named Best Himalaya Trip” of Outside Magazine

In case you haven’t heard the great news yet, the Moun­tain Mad­ness Tsum Val­ley Trek was award­ed Best Himalaya Trip” by Out­side Mag­a­zine! Trekkers can join us in the fall for a great glimpse into this recent­ly opened spec­tac­u­lar region. If you did­n’t get a chance to check out our Tsum Val­ley blog sev­er­al months ago, take a look at what the Hid­den Val­ley of Hap­pi­ness can pro­vide for your adventure.

This month, the action in the Himalayas starts with our first Ever­est Base Camp Trek. For those of you who have not yet joined us on this clas­sic adven­ture, we have three Spring dates start­ing March 26, April 17 and May 8. Client favorites Deana Zabal­do and Shayan Rohani will lead these treks to the base of the top of the world. We will return again in the Fall, along with our first trip to Tsum Valley!

*NEW ADDI­TION* to this already intrigu­ing trip: take a walk with a Bud­dhist lama. The lama will teach us about the basics of Bud­dhism, help coor­di­nate a spe­cial bless­ing cer­e­mo­ny at one of the area monas­ter­ies, lead option­al brief med­i­ta­tion ses­sions for inter­est­ed clients, and gen­er­al­ly pro­vide a deep­er lev­el of entrée to Tsum Val­ley’s rich cul­tur­al her­itage. For those of you who have already become enam­ored with the stun­ning land­scapes of Nepal or who want some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than the stan­dard Ever­est Base Camp Trek, call us to sched­ule your Tsum Val­ley Trek now.

Young monk and his teacher. Mark Gun­log­son photo

Tsum Valley: Nepal’s Hidden Valley of Happiness

Moun­tain Mad­ness guide Deana Zabal­do recent­ly explored the Tsum Val­ley in Nepal. We’re hap­py to announce that she will be lead­ing a trip there in the fall of 2012. Below is her report- take a look and lets us know what you think- we hope you can join!

All pho­tos by Dena Zabaldo

I’m not sure I want to tell you about the Hid­den Val­ley of Hap­pi­ness. You might decide to go there. Bud­dhist prayers carved into stone tablets line the trails of Tsum Val­ley, while snow-capped 6000m peaks appear beyond and between the ver­tig­i­nous brown hill­sides”. Tra­di­tion­al cul­ture per­vades the area, with women spin­ning wool into thread by hand and friend­ly faces invit­ing you in for tea…or home­made alcohol.

Tsum Val­ley, known in sacred Bud­dhist texts as the Hid­den Val­ley of Hap­pi­ness, was opened only 3 years ago for tourism. Bare­ly a lodge exists, and tourists are still wel­comed as respect­ed guests. Begin­ning on the main route into the Man­aslu Con­ser­va­tion Area, you curve for days through a steep-sided gorge where the sun arrives mid-morn­ing and departs well before sun­set. Water­falls abound, mon­keys appear, and slate roofs top mud hous­es as you grad­u­al­ly climb 4000ft (1200m).

After 4 – 5 days, you will reach a nar­row canyon sided by sheer boul­ders. This is the entry to Tsum, paint­ed with the ubiq­ui­tous Bud­dhist bless­ing and mantra Om Mani Padme Hung in 3‑foot Tibetan let­ters. One side has been blast­ed out to cre­ate a trail, but it’s clear the ear­li­er route which skirt­ed the high edge of the boul­der on a few pieces of pre­car­i­ous­ly placed wood is part of what kept this val­ley hid­den. Beyond the gate­way you will find the vil­lages of Tsum at 8,000 – 12,000ft (2400 – 3700m). Trade with Kath­man­du was so dif­fi­cult that most goods came on yak car­a­vans over the moun­tains from Tibet, rather than up from the hills of Nepal.

Begin your trek in steep-sided gorges…

…and climb to the high alpine val­ley of Tsum

Split­ting from the main route, the trail becomes rougher, the vil­lages are clean­er, the hous­es and cul­ture are more Tibetan, and peo­ple are still guile­less and gen­uine. Young girls are shy to have their pho­to tak­en but then become fas­ci­nat­ed with see­ing them­selves dis­played on the screen. Old women have yet to under­stand that you can’t take the pic­ture from the cam­era imme­di­ate­ly and give it to them. Men wear fur-lined hats brought over from Tibet and ride hors­es that jin­gle with strings of bells. Yak car­a­vans loaded with rice, salt, and tea com­mand the trail as they pass. Peo­ple greet you with easy smiles and com­mon ques­tions, Where are you from?…Where are you going?”.

Trails are lined with paint­ed stu­pas, prayers carved into stone tablets, and sacred gateways.

Tsum Val­ley is believed to be a place where obsta­cles – spir­i­tu­al and oth­er­wise – have been removed. As such, it has long been an impor­tant reli­gious area. The Bud­dhist saint Milarepa med­i­tat­ed in a secret cave here in the 11th cen­tu­ry, and the val­ley remains home to over 200 nuns and monks today. You enter each vil­lage through a sacred gate, paint­ed with fad­ed pic­tures of pro­tec­tive deities to cleanse you of any evil spir­its before you pro­ceed. Most vil­lages have a large com­mu­ni­ty prayer wheel where women gath­er every month to fast and chant mantras. Eso­teric rit­u­als and mask dances are per­formed by lamas to puri­fy the area.

Black-hat dancers puri­fy the area of obsta­cles and evil spirits.

Mask dancers enact a Bud­dhist para­ble about a hunter and his wife.

The val­ley is also a pro­tect­ed area where killing is not allowed, and wildlife remains abun­dant com­pared to oth­er areas of Nepal. You can hike all the way to the Tibetan bor­der for stag­ger­ing moun­tain views, eas­i­ly spot­ting herds of Himalayan blue sheep and wild moun­tain goats along the way. The area monks at one point peti­tioned the gov­ern­ment not to allow employ­ees sta­tioned at region­al offices to kill ani­mals for Hin­du sac­ri­fices or for meat. The gov­ern­ment com­plied, respect­ing the local tra­di­tions and issu­ing a ban on killing in the area. Any meat must be killed below the gate­way and then car­ried up high­er. The peace and pro­tec­tion extends to all beings: as clients joked about yeti attacks, a lama assured us quite seri­ous­ly that we didn’t need to wor­ry, Tsum is a pro­tect­ed area, and a yeti will not attack any­one here.”

A yak car­a­van returns home after deliv­er­ing goods.

Dai­ly life in the region is shaped by tra­di­tion­al skills and mod­ern demands. The peo­ple of Tsum still have yak herds and car­ry on trade with Tibet, but they are import­ing elec­tron­ics and crack­ers rather than salt and leather. They har­vest Cordy­ceps, a high-alti­tude fun­gus that is prized in Chi­nese med­i­cine and earns every­one much-need­ed cash. Chil­dren now go to Kath­man­du for bet­ter edu­ca­tion if they can afford it, but peo­ple con­tin­ue to live in sim­ple homes cen­tered around a iron stove, eat­ing bar­ley por­ridge, press­ing mus­tard seeds for oil, and brew­ing local wheat beer. We found our­selves repeat­ed­ly invit­ed into the warmth of kitchens, where we were offered tea…or teacups filled with a smooth moon­shine known as raak­si. We were fed bar­ley soup and enter­tained by local women singing tra­di­tion­al songs in dark and cozy spaces.

Local hos­pi­tal­i­ty: bot­tom­less teacups of raak­si poured with a smile.

The allure of Tsum Val­ley is the unique blend of Nepal’s best offer­ings – big moun­tain views, numer­ous monas­ter­ies and nun­ner­ies, tra­di­tion­al cul­ture, and friend­ly peo­ple – which will no doubt rapid­ly increase tourism in the area. Locals want the ben­e­fits that tourism can yield, and in a place with so few resources, tourism could bring immense eco­nom­ic ben­e­fit to the area. The chal­lenge for Tsum is that every­thing which draws vis­i­tors is at risk as tourism expands. The the impact of tourism in near­by low­er Man­aslu is read­i­ly appar­ent. Camp­sites are lit­tered with wrap­pers and garbage. Chil­dren accost you with pleas of, Namaste pen!” and Namaste bal­loon!”, hav­ing learned to beg for for­eign delights. Adults watch you pass with bland disinterest.

To dis­cour­age beg­ging, play games with chil­dren instead of hand­ing out sweets or pens.

Camp­site lit­ter cleanups demon­strate that we val­ue clean spaces.

In Tsum, 2010 saw triple the num­ber of vis­i­tors as 2009, but the total was still less than 500 peo­ple. This is a crit­i­cal time to imple­ment social­ly and envi­ron­men­tal­ly respon­si­ble tourism, which is the duty of the Tsum Wel­fare Com­mit­tee, the Man­aslu Con­ser­va­tion Area Project (MCAP), and the tourists who vis­it. How can you help? Here are a few ideas:

  • We orga­nized camp­site cleanups, pay­ing $1/​porter for peo­ple col­lect­ing lit­ter. They filled large bags quickly!
  • We want­ed to see our mon­ey going into local hands, so we employed at least 50% local porters. For all of them, it was their first time work­ing with a tourist group. They were excit­ed about the income, and we were able to learn more about their lives and culture.
  • When we checked in to the con­ser­va­tion area, we asked MCAP staff to facil­i­tate the hir­ing of local porters and place­ment of appro­pri­ate garbage facilities.
  • Instead of offer­ing can­dy and hand­outs to chil­dren on the trail, we offered them tick­les”, chas­ing after them, play­ing with them, and try­ing to find a pos­i­tive way to inter­act with­out encour­ag­ing begging.
  • To delve into the reli­gion and cul­ture, we invit­ed a lama to accom­pa­ny us as a dhar­ma teacher on our trek. He gave us expla­na­tions of Bud­dhist beliefs and her­itage, guid­ed morn­ing med­i­ta­tions, arranged a spe­cial bless­ing cer­e­mo­ny, and opened doors to the homes of fam­i­ly and friends.
  • We made reg­u­lar dona­tions at each monastery we vis­it­ed to help with preser­va­tion, restora­tion, and dai­ly care.
  • We includ­ed at least one trek staff mem­ber who was from Tsum and had local con­nec­tions to peo­ple along the way. He arranged local porters and also had our whole group to his house for tea.

The key to enjoy­ing Tsum’s local cul­ture and her­itage is to trav­el with local staff. It is their friends and fam­i­ly who will wel­come you into homes and hon­or you as a guest. As tourism grows, this sort of per­son­al wel­come and con­nec­tion will be hard to main­tain. The com­ing few years will be the best time to explore Tsum, while the trails remain qui­et and tourists con­tin­ue to be unusu­al guests.

(exceprt­ed from para​ham​sa​.com)