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Mountain Madness Climber

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)