• Adventure
  • 03 June, 2024

The Hidden Wonders of Nar Phu Valley: Beyond the Annapurna Circuit

The Hidden Wonders of Nar Phu Valley: Beyond the Annapurna Circuit
A porter heading to Nar Village. Photo by Dibesh Manandhar.

Nothing was as satisfying as eating ‘that’ apple pie when all of my body was giving up as I walked to cross the Kang La Pass (5320m). The trails did not look that tough, but I felt breathless and needed to take a break every few steps. It was somewhere near the pass at about 5100m that my friend and I sat and ate the fried apple pie with delight. I can still recall its delicious taste. We started walking after finishing the whole pie. As I was walking the last steps to the pass, I could see the panorama of a magnificent landscape with towering peaks and rolling hills stretching as far as my eyes could see. The prayer flags in the pass were fluttering along with the mountain breeze, and the crisp mountain air filled me with invigorating freshness. I felt happy that I had conquered the pass, but at the same time, I was a bit sad that this was the end of the journey. Graced with a majestic landscape, I couldn’t miss taking pictures of the beauty around me.

Eating ‘that’ fried apple pie at 5100 m. Photo by Dibesh Manandhar.

Journey to Nar Phu

Day 1: Kathmandu – Besisahar – Koto

Trekking to the Nar Phu region in Nepal is one of the most stunning and life-changing experiences you can have on all your travels. And I am pretty sure, like me, you’ll be equally captivated by the place as I was. The journey to Nar Phu starts from Besisahar in Lamjung. If you’re starting your trip from Kathmandu, prepare for a bumpy ride on the Prithvi Highway, as most of the roads on the highway are being renovated. It takes about 6 hours to get to Besisahar from Kathmandu if everything goes normally. After getting to Besisahar, you need to take a 4×4 jeep that drives you up to Koto, where the trail divides into two sections, one leading to the popular Annapurna Circuit and the other to the splendid Nar Phu Valley.

Fixing a jeep ride from Besisahar is a challenge of its own, you need to have at least 6 people in your group, otherwise, you need to wait for more people for the jeep ride to start. In our case, there were only two people in our group, so the wait time for us was about three hours. My friend and I sat comfortably in the front seat along with the driver, and four foreigners sat in the back of the jeep. The road from Besisahar to Koto travels along the Annapurna Circuit route and hosts stunning waterfalls, spectacular gorges, quaint mountain villages, and clear mountain streams. However, during monsoon season, the road can become treacherous, with dangerous landslides. Almost all of the jeeps stopped for lunch at one of the hotels near the iconic Bung waterfall at Chyamche, where our driver said, “View herdai bhat khana majja aaucha dai(It is a pleasure eating dal bhat with a view!).

Nar Phu Valley
On the way to Koto. Photo by Avant Shrestha

There were a lot of spectacular waterfalls along the way after Chyamche, but the most notable one is the Octopus Waterfall, which you can see just after driving from Chyamche. It was almost 6 p.m. when we were stopped by some local kids seeking transport to another village nearby. It was already starting to get dark and they had to walk a long way to get home. So, we decided to give them a lift and about 8-9 kids got into the back of our jeep where all of our backpacks were. All I was worried about was the home-made cookies made by my mom that I brought in for snacks when I walked in the trails. The road was bumpy and we could hear our backpacks getting squashed. The kids got off just before Koto. We got off at Koto around 6.30 pm and took out our backpacks from the jeep.

It was almost dinner time when we arrived at Koto. The first thing I did when I got to the hotel was check for the cookies. My worst fear came true, but it was not that bad, as some cookies were safe. When my friend and I got to the central heating place at the hotel, we met two Nepalese tourists who were surprised when they found out that they were not the only Nepalese trekking to Nar Phu Valley. We found out later that the two Nepalese tourists were brothers. There was also a South African girl trekking the same route as us, along with a guide. Now, there were five of us preparing to go to the same place tomorrow morning. We had our dinner and went to sleep to rest our sore muscles from the bumpy drive.

Day 2: Koto – Meta

Koto serves as the gateway to the Nar Phu Valley. It’s better to start the trek early from Koto, as there is a great distance to cover to get to Meta. We started around 6.30 am and crossed the river through a suspension bridge, walked along the river banks, and passed through beautiful pine forests and numerous waterfalls. I tend to get competitive when walking with strangers, so every time someone would get ahead of me, I paced myself and got ahead of them. This is not recommended, though, I used to get very tired every time I did this. We were blessed with spectacular weather all day, so the skies were crystal clear with no signs of clouds, and the trails were relatively empty as it was almost the end of the trekking season in Nepal at that time. Just before reaching Dharmashala, a small place with only a single teahouse, we passed through a narrow gully, formed by carving a big cliff on the trail, under a wide waterfall. The locals at Meta later said that during peak winter, the waterfall gets frozen and is a beautiful sight. We stopped at Dharmashala for a tea break and enjoyed the serene surroundings around us.

Nar Phu Valley
On the way to Meta. Photo by Avant Shrestha

After Dharmashala, the treeline slowly started to decline, and the views got wider. The last climb to Meta felt like walking through a high mountain pass with the cold, brisk wind constantly coming against us. The vistas around us were what kept us motivated to continue on. We arrived at Meta around 3.30 p.m. and stayed in one of the teahouses for the night. The five of us stayed at Meta in separate hotels. The people in our teahouse were really friendly and shared a lot of stories about the place.

They were talking about how the whole Nar Phu Valley has transformed from what used to be a restricted area to now an emerging trekking destination for all. The owner of the teahouse also told us that Meta is the base camp for Kang Guru mountain expedition. “After the avalanche in 2005 that swept a group of French climbers along with some porters and guides to their deaths, there are not a lot of climbers that have come for the Kang Guru expedition, which used to give the teahouses like ours here in Meta a good business,” said the owner of the teahouse, expressing great sorrow. Sitting around the fireplace, sharing stories, and conversing with the locals is a unique experience on its own. To my fascination, most of the teahouses in the Nar Phu Valley were equipped with solar lights, so it was easy for the locals and trekkers to charge their equipment.

Day 3: Meta – Phu Village

The next day, we woke up early to make our way to Phu village. It was another 7-8 hour walk. We could see the Nar Phedi monastery on the other side of the river, where we would be staying for a night before heading to Nar village. When we were taking a snap of the monastery, we heard the brothers coming from a distance, so we waited for them and walked together for a while. The first half of the trek was really rewarding in terms of the views and the easiness of the trail. After walking for about an hour, we reached Jhunum.

Jhunum is a picturesque place surrounded by rugged mountain peaks all around and is a perfect place to take a short break, which we did. We could see Pisang Peak in clear view from Jhunum. I took out the packet of cookies from my backpack and started to eat the crumbs resulted from the ‘accident’ two days ago in the jeep. Even the crumbs were delightful. After eating some of the cookie crumbs, we started to walk towards Chyaku. The massive Mt. Annapurna II could be seen prominently against the backdrop as we reached the deserted fields of Chyaku. Everyone stopped for lunch at Chyaku, but my friend and I only drank tea and left for Phu village.

After Chyaku, the trail is really narrow and feels like walking along a ledge adjoining the cliff face on the right side of the river. However, the extraordinary landscape that resembles cosmic wonders beyond our earthly realm really captivates you. We took many short breaks to take pictures of everything around us, as it was so fascinating. We saw a small monastery and some ruined fort-like structures made out of stone in a flatland, which was Kyang. Kyang and Chyaku used to be winter settlements and still are for some people living in Nar and Phu, though most people now migrate to Kathmandu or Pokhara for the winter. The teahouses in both Chyaku and Kyang are newly constructed buildings with zinc sheet roofs. I personally would prefer to stay in the stone houses. The ruined buildings are used as winter houses by the people of Nar and Phu villages. The valley becomes more barren the further you go. The trail is as picturesque as it is dangerous.

Settlements at Phu Village. Photo by Dibesh Manandhar.

Just before reaching the Phu gate, we came across a monolith-shaped rock from where we climbed the steep uphill that took us to Phu village. We could see the Phu village decorated with vibrant prayer flags, numerous chortens, and a monastery at the top. We crossed a suspension bridge, reached Phu village, and stayed in one of the guest houses. We were joined by the brothers in the same guest house, where we had one of the best meals of all of the trek. The guest house was owned by a family, and the youngest son, Karma, was the only one present there. The family had already gone to Kathmandu for the winter.

The main source of income for most of the people living in Nar and Phu is from the tourists that visit the place and sell Yarchagumba (cordyceps). Karma showed us videos on his phone when he went to pick cordyceps with his friends and when he crossed the Kang La pass and went to Tilicho, both on a horse. He also recommended that we visit Nar Phu during the monsoon season, as the region lies in a rain shadow area, so it receives just enough precipitation for the crops to grow. We had decided to see the stars at night, so I set up my camera on the tripod and gazed at the stars above. Luckily, I was the first one to see a meteor shower that night, and everyone stayed for more. But the cold weather didn’t let us stay outside for long, and we decided it was time for us to sleep.

The night sky from Phu Village. Photo by Dibesh Manandhar.

Day 4: Phu Village – Nar Phedi Monastery

The next morning, we walked to the Tashi Lhakhang Gumba, which lies on the hill opposite Phu village. The Gumba is said to have been constructed in the memory of Karma Sonam Rinpoche, who came to Nepal with the Dalai Lama. The Gumba is in a perfect spot to see Phu village from a top angle. The sun started to rise just as we reached the top of the monastery and saw the first light illuminating the Phu village. Most people spend an extra day for acclimatization at Phu and hike up to Himlung Base Camp. As for us, we decided to skip the hike to Himlung Base Camp and get to Nar Phedi for the night. When we left Phu, we met the South African girl who was going to Himlung Base Camp with her guide. That is where we said our goodbyes and continued on our paths.

We retraced the same way back to Meta, passing through Kyang and Chyaku, and went towards Nar Phedi monastery. Leaving Phu felt like a heartbreak for me, so I walked really sluggishly that day, on top of that the weather got really cloudy.

The Nar Phedi Monastery is the only accommodation available in the whereabouts. The rooms are well maintained by the nuns living in the monastery, and the food was really good. We joined them in the kitchen and sat around the fireplace, sharing conversations about the day’s walk. Our walk the next day was going to be a gentle one, so everyone was in high spirits. It was a tiring day for everyone, so we went to sleep right after we had dinner.

Day 5: Nar Phedi Monastery – Nar Village

After a hearty breakfast, we started the walk on a winding path up the hill from the monastery. The weather was really pleasant, as the clouds from the day before cleared up and we could again see the blue sky above us. As the uphill seemed to finish, we saw a series of chhortens decorated in a line from where we could clearly see the flatlands of Chyaku. After passing the chhortens, the village of Nar loomed near. Nar is comparatively bigger than Phu village and lies on a bed of land just opposite the Pisang peak. I instantly fell in love with the place. It seemed more lively than Phu, and the locals were busy herding their cattle and working on their fields.

We had yak chowmein for lunch and went on a day hike to the view point of the Nar village. The trail up to the view point from Nar village was really sketchy but offered surreal views of the village along with the Kang Guru mountain. Upon returning from the view point, we started to prepare for the long walk to Kang La Pass what would await us the following day. For dinner, we decide to try Shyakpa, a traditional stew consisting of hand-pulled dough strips, vegetables, and meat. The Shyakpa tasted really good with yak meat, and I had two bowls. There are no teahouses when trekking from Nar to Ngawal via Kang La Pass, so it is recommended to carry a packed lunch. We browsed through the menu and saw Apple Pie and thought it would be interesting.

Nar Village. Photo by Dibesh Manandhar.

Day 6: Nar village – Ngawal

We woke up around 4 a.m. By the time we got ready, our packed lunch had been prepared too. We thanked the owner of the teahouse, bid our farewells, and started our hike. It was cold, and everyone was walking with their head torches. I was desperately waiting for the sun to rise so that it could warm the bones in my body. The trail to Kang La Pass was comparatively easy, but as we got higher, we could slowly feel the effects of the altitude.

The trail up to Kang La Phedi is pretty straightforward; it is after Kang La Phedi that the real climb starts. The sun rose high as we just left Kang La Phedi, which brought a sense of relief for me. Halfway to the pass, I could feel the thin air and the high altitude getting the better of me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the apple pie I had in my backpack, so my friend and I decided to take a break and eat that apple pie. As soon as I took the first bite, I was transported to a world full of flavors. The fresh green apple mixed with a filling made out of sugar, cinnamon and cardamom created a warm, comforting sweetness. The crust of the pie was not baked but fried, so it was a unique taste for me. We had decided to save some to eat at the pass, but it was so good that we finished all. 

After finishing the apple pie, I felt I could walk better only to see the trails covered with snow. We were not prepared for walking in the snow. It was slippery and took double the effort to climb the uphill to the pass. I think this is the day that I took the most breaks in all of our trekking journey because I was breathless after every other step. We had to walk in the snow for an hour or so, until we reached the pass. The pass was decorated with vibrant prayer flags with the massive Annapurna II, Tilicho Peak and Gangapurna in the background. The two brothers reached the pass before us so they greeted by congratulating us and we did the same. No one could miss taking pictures and videos from the pass

Nar Phu Valley
The breathtaking view from Ngawal. Photo by Avant Shrestha

We could clearly see our destination Ngawal right at the end of the valley from the pass. The trail down from the pass was very steep and covered with loose rocks, which made our walk even more difficult. After descending down for approximately 3 hours, we reached Ngawal where we decided to take a jeep the next day.

Even though Ngawal lies in the Annapurna Circuit, it is often overlooked by many and is an underrated destination. I personally recommend to stay a night at Ngawal as it is a visual treat for trekkers and visitors to see the village with the breathtaking vistas in the backdrop.

Looking back from Ngawal, we could see the zigzag lines coming down from the pass, wondering how we came down that path. That was the end of our journey. As happy as I was for completing the pass successfully, something inside me felt incomplete, and my body was unwilling to leave the serene place. The next day, we had breakfast and the jeep just arrived in time to take us back to our homes from Ngawal.

Walking through the Nar Phu Valley is a breathtaking experience with a rich cultural heritage that transcends the ordinary, leaving you with memories of a lifetime and a profound appreciation for the Himalayas. Even though of its remoteness, the Nar Phu Valley is a trek beyond the crowded Annapurna Circuit, which allows you to experience true adventure and discover fascinating cultures, towering peaks, and off-the-beaten paths.

The first sun rays hit Phu village. Photo by Dibesh Manandhar.

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