Bart Lawler: Journey to the Hidden Tsum Valley of Nepal

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KYIMOLUNG  (Tibetan for ‘Valley of Happiness’). This holy hidden valley within Nepal near the border of Tibet, is a restricted area and was unknown to the world 40 years ago and has only been opened up for trekking since 2008.

I felt very privileged and excited to see this beautiful part of Nepal relatively untouched, as we “stepped back in time” to an area rich in ancient art, tradition and Tibetan culture surrounded by spectacular scenery of soaring cliffs, thundering waterfalls, steep gorges,hot springs  and beautiful snow covered mountains.

We passed numerous chortens and mani walls made up of thousands of carved slabs. We walked through ancient villages of old stone houses, through cultivated fields of barley, millet and grassy meadows with yak grazing. We saw many Buddhist monasteries, monks in their maroon robes and nunnerys. The locals can be heard chanting regularly each day, fingering prayer beads.

We were welcomed very warmly by the local villagers in every corner of the valley. They are so humble and non materialistic. The area is less well trodden so the facilities along the way are minimal, which is part of the charm.

Bart, please tell us a bit about yourself … 

My family moved to Port Macquarie in 1979 from Sydney, and I went to school at St Joseph’s Regional High School. I am currently a Partner at NorthCorp Accountants and an CA SMSF specialist in the administration of self managed superannuation funds, and I am also a registered company auditor. I got the travel bug when my wife, Mandy, and I went to Italy in 2004 and have returned there a few times since. We have also been to India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

Why did you decide to take a trip to the restricted and “hidden” Tsum Valley of Nepal … 

I have always been interested in history and different cultures and religions. I thought this was a good opportunity to see Kathmandu and traditional Nepalese/Tibetan villages. Kathmandu has seven UNESCO listed world heritage sights, including Bhaktapur and Durbar Square, which were interesting historical sites. The Tsum Valley has only been open up to tourists via special permits since 2008, so it is fairly untouched by western influences and technology.

How long was your trip, and whom did you travel with? 

The trip to Nepal was organised by Geoff Metcalfe of Dreamtreks, whom I have known for a number of years. The trip was a total of 20 days, which included 3 days in Kathmandu which allowed me to explore the city. Geoff also came along, as this was the first time Dreamtreks had organised a tour into this restricted area. We were guided by Ang Lama, who is highly qualified and experienced and he had two other porter, Saroj and Yam to cook for us some meals and lighten our load along the trail.

Describe some of the sights you saw, activities you experienced, and the people and places you visited while you were away?

We saw a lot of agricultural and farming activities all along the valley, growing mainly rice, corn and millet at that time of the year. A lot of the work was manual labour, including thrashing of rice and ploughing the fields, but some villages used water mills for grinding the grains. There were plenty of farm animals, including Yaks, in the upper valleys, but we also saw vultures, monkeys and various bird life. It was my first time trekking, so I had a lot of firsts – including climbing above 4,000 metres and walking in snow. I was thankful not to experience altitude sickness.

What was your first impression of this hidden valley with its 7,000+ metre peaks only recently opened up to trekking?

There were stunning views of the rivers, valley and mountain ranges with numerous waterfalls. We had perfect weather, and it wasn’t as cold as I expected. The village children were friendly and eager to greet us with “Namaste” or “Tashi Delek”; they also wanted a balloon, pen or chocolates, which I was able to accommodate with pens and Lindt chocolate bars. The villages were very traditional, with few western luxuries such as running water and electricity. We passed a lot of porters carrying various supplies to villages; it looked like back-breaking work most – and most wore thongs.

What would you describe as being the highlight of your trip?

In the upper Tsum Valley we climbed to 4,100 metres with views towards the Tibetan border, Ganesh Himal (mountain) which is around 7,400 metres and a valley carved out by a glacier. Whilst we were up there, we were circled by four Griffon vultures and watched then catching the thermal currents. I did secretly hope to see a snow leopard, but they are very shy and secluded. Flying into Kathmandu, the skies were clear and I got amazing views of the Himalayan mountains; I’m told this is a rare sight due to cloud cover.

How did you find the people you encountered on your travels? The area borders on Tibet. Was the culture Tibetan and if so, was it what you’d expected?

As we reached the upper parts of the valley, you could tell that the villagers were more Tibetan than Nepalese by their dress and their facial features. They appeared very shy and wary of us, but our guide, Ang, could speak their language and interact with them to put them at ease and put a smile on their faces.

The older villages preferred that we didn’t take their pictures, so you had to ask first; they thought we were stealing their spirits. The children were more open to having their pictures taken. We also met number of trekkers along the way from various countries and shared some interesting experiences.

How much did you enjoy the local food? 

The staple diet in the valley was “Dal Bhat”, which is essentially rice, a spicy potato curry, spinach and lentil soup which is a good carbo load for walking the trail, but I wouldn’t want to have it at every meal. I did try some yak milk cheese and yak meat for the first time, and I was introduced to a drink called “raksi”, which is usually made from fermented millet or rice.

Why would you recommend this particular tour to others?

I don’t believe Dreamtreks will offer this exact tour next year, as Geoff and Ang have found some ideal camping locations and will likely incorporate the Manaslu circuit, which only adds a few more days to the trip. But yes I would recommend the tour as Dreamtrek takes the hassle out of travelling, caters to small or private groups, and is flexible with their itinerary. Ang can open doors with all his connections in Nepal.

Where will you be off to on your next travel adventure?

I’m always planning our next adventure. I have already purchased our flights for the USA next year and we will spend most of our time on the east coast, including New York and Boston.

I’m a baseball fan and hope to catch a few NY Yankee games. Mandy wants to practice at Eddie Sterns’ Ashtanga yoga studio as well, so we will try and find a balance.

Thanks Bart.

Interview by Jo Atkins.

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