Manang. Once, not very long ago, a name as exotic and of geographically uncertain location to most as, say, Timbuktu. As far away, and as remote. A place, mentioned in conversations, with that uncertain frown people often have when they refer to places they have not been to, or have heard only vaguely about.
It’s not so remote now, thanks to inroads made by the tourism and development industry. Still, Manang has managed to retain some of its exotic air.
It is perhaps its air of remoteness, that far-away feel, which lends Manang its rather frontier appeal. This is a high mountain valley, with six to eight thousand meter high mountains towering over it – and the steady rise of a rolling, barren, beautiful Tibetan plateau to its north.
The valley itself is open, but not too wide, running approximately in a north-west flow, with narrow branches reaching into the mountains on either side. It claims to have its own microclimate, being impervious to the normal monsoon weather pattern the rest of the country experiences, because the Annapurna mountain range to the south forms a barrier against monsoon rains. Instead, streams and springs in the valley are fed by snowmelt from the mountains, and they in turn water the meadows, forests and farmland down the length of the valley, allowing people to make a living off the land here.
Mountains to the east of the valley heighten its closed-in feel. Mountains forming a swathe of high Himalayas, appropriately named by earlier explorers as ‘The great barrier’. There is a lake there, Tili-tso, set in splendid isolation 5,000 m above sea level, surrounded by sheer mountain walls and ice, often frozen as its surroundings. Two high passes punch through these mountains in the east of Manang, and descend into the deep Kali Gandaki valley beyond. One of these passes form part of the popular Annapurna trekking route, and at 5,416 m above sea level, is the highest point most trekkers will ever walk up to, without being part of a mountaineering team. The view there is usually worthwhile.
Around thirteen villages, spread over 2,246 sq km, make up this region of Nepal. Half of the villages are in what is known as Upper Manang, including the town of Manang, a focal settlement in the valley. The remaining villages are spread across Lower Manang, an area generally understood to be lower than the Pisang village, and includes the district headquarters at Chamé. The high valley leading up to Nar and Phu are also ruggedly, and sparsely, peopled.
In the late 1950’s, King Mahendra visited Manang, drawn possibly by the stories he had heard about its beauty. Perhaps moved both by the people and the place, (Manang was a very poor region then), he decreed that Manangis need not pay government duties while importing and exporting goods from Nepal. It was a trade concession that the people of Manang prospered through, already having a history of being traders. Today, they constitute one of the most prosperous communities in Nepal – though many of them now prefer to live in cities, instead of in the hills.
The people who still remain in the hills though are a sturdy cheerful lot, many of who have adapted well to the opportunities brought about by tourism. However, off the tourist trail, most people in Manang still make a living off traditional ways like farming, animal husbandry and trade. Tourism here has made its impact, and it’s positive for the most, but that’s only one aspect of life here. It’s mostly a rugged existence for the people here, with living standards at basic levels. Most homes and villages are still stone walled constructions of ancient design, with livestock housed in the ground floor, and stairways made of notched logs leading to sparse dark accommodations.
Here, when the seasons change and the land is bound by snow, the people hunker down to a traditional way of life – of staying warm, staying alive and weathering the cold and the snow until spring comes around again. Their houses of stone and hewn beams are huddled together into medieval villages, with narrow cobbled streets, close, dark, and fortified against the snow and wind. Here, one often sees huge mastiff’s sunning their dread locked selves in patches of sunlight, or disheveled yaks trotting through the narrow lanes, or cheerful and incredibly wrinkled elderly people - with children with equally incredible red cheeks and good cheer. It’s a weathered lot out here, the people and beasts of Manang. A strong confident culture - even if the people here often live what a casual observer might describe as a threadbare existence.
Buddhist culture pervades society in Manang. That, and the worship of nature and its elements. Looking around at the majesty of the landscape, it is not hard to understand the respect they have for nature. It’s easy to be impressed by your surroundings here. For the Buddhist part, there are prayer flags, chortems and cairns everywhere, signs of a culture closely defined by their faith. Manangis find in their faith a good measure of the strength they need to wrestle a living, and even to thrive, in a place where weak gene pools evaporated long ago.
And then there are the horses of Manang. Horses are a big part of their lifestyle and most locals who can afford to, have horses. They are a bit of a specialty to this part of their mountains of Nepal. It’s a reminder perhaps of their possible origin as warriors or hunter-traders. Skills in archery and horsemanship are ever a matter of pride here, and there are yearly festivals to celebrate and keep alive these skills. Archery is mostly ceremonial now, as hunting has been made illegal after Manang became part of a conservation area. Horsemanship though is still a useful skill, and they take pride in their animals. The animals themselves seem happy and well looked after for the most.
Pack animals like mules and the multi-faceted yak are also an important part of life here. These animals are a means of survival. Often, while on the trails here, you will find yourself pressing yourself against a wall as poker-faced mules, the lead animal decorated with a colorful pennant on top of its head; strain past with their loads. These are the freight trains of the Himalayan trails. The yaks, of course, will be gazing at you from the top of an impossible ridge, or you will hear the occasional ‘clong’ of their bells as they forage unseen in the shrubbery by the trail. These animals, like in many parts of the Himalayas, are an integral part of the life of the people here.
Off the beaten trail in these mountains, there are many places one can go to, in order to appreciate Manang. There is Thanchowk, a village in lower Manang, about an hour’s walk down from Chamé. A dreamy village when visited in late autumn, it is a picturesque outpost, a bucolic idyll even, spread across the top of a wide ledge, and unseen above the normal trekking route being tramped below by weary trekkers gaining altitude.
Emerging from a forest trail leading to it, one finds a wide clearing that appears to be a plateau or a flattened spur, hanging far above the Marshyangdi river. Fringed and interspersed with apple trees laden with fruit (in autumn), the village has a slightly fairy tale look. Horses grazing on open meadows, apple trees so laden with apples, that the foot of every tree is carpeted by fallen fruit and houses oozing smoke from cracks in their stone walls, and gray smoke easing its way out through thatched roofs.
The village itself, a Gurung settlement, is on the higher part of the ridge when coming in from the west. A stone flagged path leads up to the village, and fields, both fallow and with crop on either side, ending at the beginning of the forest around the village. The cluster of houses that make up the village is a mix of stone and wood. Every home a handmade shelter, no house bears any sign of pretension, like houses in the city tend to do. Arriving in the afternoon, across the village to the east, the Manaslu massif was being painted in gold by the early sunset. We could so easily have been the picture on a postcard saying to everyone we knew – ‘wish you were here’.
Dinner that evening was by the light of a kitchen fire, sitting with the ‘head-sir’s’ family on a smooth clay floor, surrounded by well-used and polished brass utensils neatly lined along the wall across. Warm raksi sipped between lulls in conversation, and the crackling of an open hearth. Steaming heaps of rice, and vegetable so fresh - it was almost alive. Dried mutton in an extraordinarily delicious, gravy. Heaven!
There’s nothing quite like food served with that genuine kind of hospitality common in many villages around Manang. It makes friends out of strangers.
At night, it is very dark and stars burn steadily in the cold clear air. It’s quiet mostly, but always, somewhere, there is the sound of water running away downhill. Far below, the muted roar of the river too. Morning is all dew and sunshine. Shafts of sunlight light up the scene that is so fresh you find yourself trying to pack it on film through your camera - for future consumption, to preserve forever. It doesn’t always work, but it’s nice to think you may. This is a golden place from where the wealth is what you are able to see and remember. That is really all the wealth you can take from the hills.
My companion, who brought me to Thanchowk, tells me that lower Manang often does not get the attention it deserves, in terms of tourism. I tend to agree. Upper Manang is spectacular in a more obvious way. Lower Manang is more subtle; it has more for those that may prefer to walk off the beaten path, but neither area is any less enriching in the end.
Manang can be visited as a tourist, sweating it up a high trail in sunlight, basking in an afternoons warmth with a drink of choice, drinking in a view you can’t seem to capture on camera, no matter how many functions your digital wonder may profess. You can eat great food, stay in comfortable lodges and have a wonderful time in Manang, coddled by a hospitable culture, stunned by geological showpieces, emboldened by your own presence in this harsh yet beautiful world.
Manang however also needs to be visited at a pace that trekking does not allow. It can offer a richer experience to those that have more time to experience this world and the people that make it. Hang out long enough here and it makes you realize that those that live here are not just lucky or trapped. They are people that deserve to be there. The Manangis have earned the right to their land, no matter what their smaller ethnicity – be it Gurungs or Ghales or Nyeshang or whoever. It is after all not the people who choose a land; it’s a land that chooses its people.
This is Manang. A place that is still a frontier region for another way of life.