The name ‘Tsum’ is said to originate from an old Tibetan word for ‘vivid’. This is certainly an apt way to describe the cultivated barley fields of the fertile Tsum Valley. This culturally fascinating area only opened to tourists in 2007. A trek in the Tsum Valley can be enjoyed on its own, or as an ‘add-on’ to the more famous and popular Manaslu Circuit.
Tsum really feels like a hidden valley. You enter by an inconspicuous side trail shortly after the hamlet of Ekle Bhatti, early in the Manaslu Circuit trek. From there, you break away from the Budhi Gandaki River and follow the smaller Shyar Kola River, which nurtures Tsum all the way to the head of the valley. This journey can be completed as a teahouse trek, where at the end of each day’s trek you stay in accommodation which offers basic amenities and food, or you can delve a little deeper into the valley by adding a few nights of camping.
Along the first part of the trail, you will cross a cantilever bridge bolted to the side of a cliff. Its construction was only completed in January 2018, after the April 2015 earthquake and associated landslides destroyed many of the access paths into Tsum. Cut off from the infrastructure of the rest of Nepal, it is easy to see how the inhabitants of Tsum have retained their distinct culture.
There are currently no operational roads in the sacred Tsum Valley, unlike its better-known counterpart, Upper Mustang (where walkers must dodge the Jeeps that share the hybrid trekking trail-road). However, parts of the trail within the Tsum Valley itself are being widened, presumably in advance of opening Jeep access to China, so this will change the nature of the valley, and the trek, when it’s completed. In the meantime, Himalayan tahr and bharal (blue sheep) roam the valley in peace and quiet.
Locals wear traditional Tibetan clothing and speak their own, unique dialect. They have retained a deep connection with their culture due to limited interference from outside. The primary occupation here is subsistence agriculture, and this contributes to the very authentic feel to the valley. People are living off the land. The Tsum Valley welcomes trekkers but, unlike many other trails in Nepal, the locals don’t depend upon them: there are no signs advertising Illy coffee in Tsum.
While trekking here, be prepared to feel as though you have stepped back in time. Everyone seems to be carrying a spinning bobbin or a prayer wheel, and ancient gompas cling impossibly to the mountainside. Perhaps the most interesting is the Milarepa’s Cave Monastery, built around a cave that contains the sacred ‘Milarepa’s footprint’. Legend says that the footprint was melted onto the stone as Milarepa, a reformed murderer who became an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, finally stood up after a long stint of meditation. Unlike other more visited sites, this is an actively sacred site where worship, not tourism, is the primary focus. The nunnery at Rechen Gomba, close to the village of Lar, provides a fascinating glimpse into Buddhism through the eyes of women.
The real jewel at the top of the Tsum Valley is the unmissable Mu Gompa. Rising above the tree line as you hike from the settlement of Nile, Mu Gompa is the last post of civilization this side of the Tibetan border. It is still a working monastery. There is the option to overnight here for dawn views of Ganesh Himal. Accommodation is very basic: you stay in the monastery’s rooms rather than a teahouse, and the only dinner option is dal bhat cooked by monks. Otherwise, there is the option to overnight at Nile and hike to Mu Gompa in the morning, before returning to Nile for lunch.
The views of Ganesh Himal from Mu Gompa steal the show, but also beautiful is the unusual contrast between the greenness of the fertile valley and the white-topped peaks. Usually, such peaks can only be seen up-close at inhospitable altitudes, but the sheltered Tsum Valley gives the best of both worlds. The crops that make up the base of the valley are an impossibly vivid shade of green. I spent an enjoyable April morning sitting outside the teahouse in the charming village of Chumling at dawn, watching as the white peaks were tinged pink with the sun’s first rays, sipping Tibetan tea in my sandals, at a comfortable temperature.
Sheltered between high mountains, Tsum does have its own microclimate, so it is best to be prepared with waterproofs. Rain often persists for a few days, trapped in the valley. If blue skies are important to you, consider building a few days into your itinerary to weather out a storm in a cosy lodge, drinking tea. During sunny weather, trekking days can get quite sweaty as it is a relatively low-altitude trek – Nile, the last village at the top of the valley, is at 3,361 metres, with Mu Gompa another 350 metres higher. Many lodges have gas-heated shower options (but not at Mu Gompa), so you can clean up in the evening.
The culinary pleasures of Tsum do not disappoint. Dal bhat is made with locally grown vegetables from the valley. Another option is the valley’s ‘T Momo’, dough balls accompanied by a thick, turmeric-rich potato soup, which will fill you up for lunch but not leave you feeling so heavy that you cannot enjoy the afternoon’s trekking. Tibetan tea is made with butter from the valley’s well-grazed cows. Like much of the region, Seabuckthorn juice, which packs a healthy vitamin C punch, is available in the autumn.
The Tsum Valley is a very versatile trek, time-wise. It could be done as a three-day ‘add-on’ from the main Manaslu trail if you are an adventurous, fast trekker used to long days. In contrast, some camping expeditions spend ten or more days in the valley, pushing up past Mu Gompa to the valley’s northern tip. I spent four nights in the valley, which seemed comfortable. Taking a guide is mandatory for the Tsum Valley (as it is for the Manaslu Circuit), so it is worth communicating your expectations with your guide in advance. Many guides are initially reluctant to alter their ‘standard’ itinerary, but if you have previous trekking experience and know roughly how much ground you would be able to comfortably cover in a day, you can create a more tailored itinerary.
The first part of the trail from the trail head after Ekle Bhatti (1600 metres) to Chumling does have a reasonable amount of ascent, around 900 metres. However, from Chumling all the way up to Nile, at the top of the valley, the ascent is more gradual. The exceptions to this are when you want to visit gompas on the mountainside, which of course involve short but steep climbs. Following the teahouse route, Tsum Valley trek is an up-and-back trek from Lokpa, the first settlement in Tsum Valley, to Mu Gompa and back. Camping options extend the trip by pushing deeper into the wild areas even closer to Tibet, north of Mu Gompa. They also allow for flexibility by following the eastern side of the Shyar Kola on the way down from Mu Gompa. The trail from Chekumpar to Chhokang Paro does include some landslide areas, where rocks are still falling, so care must be taken there, but otherwise the trail is not very technical.
We saw all kinds of trekkers enjoying the Tsum Valley, from young adults to those in their late 70s. For trekkers of at least moderate fitness who want to Nepal without the crowds, frills and flourishes of tourist hot spots, the Tsum Valley trek offers a scenic and rewarding adventure.
Article by Hannah Straw