The Himalayas conjure images of myth and mysticism. If one place were to embody all of this, that place would be Manang. Perched into cliffs rising 3518 metres above sea level, Manang is set north of the Annapurna Range. A winding, treacherous road leads into the settlement, a path once traveled only by horses or on foot, yet now traversed by jeeps, motorbikes, and a few daring buses. Though the Marshyangdi River lies to the east, the area is dry and barren. However, as any visitor will quickly discover, the warmth and culture of the Manangi people brighten the dusty landscape.
One of the largest villages along the Annapurna Circuit, Manang is a popular resting point for climbers acclimatizing before attempting the Thorong La Pass (5415 metres). One night in Manang may turn into two or three. The village entices visitors with sights to see and places to explore. Lounge on a rooftop deck and marvel at Annapurna III and Gangapurna Peak, or walk through the streets of the original village: wooden homes with buffaloes feeding on straw and children laughing from stone windows are delights to watch.
The district of Manang is divided into two sections, Lower and Upper. Throughout the region, households are decorated with Buddhist prayer flags and other totems of the ancient Bon religion. Festivals are unique; unlike the fiery red powder you’ll see on foreheads in other parts of Nepal, tikkas are milky white.
Manangis have their own language, one of over 400 dialects of the Sino-Tibetan family spoken across Asia. Manangi is classified as a threatened language. It is unwritten, and the number of speakers continues to decline as young people are educated outside of the community and families migrate for business opportunities.
Historically, Manangis (who are Gurung and Ghale people) would hunker down and brave trying winters. Those who have remained in Manang have built livelihoods around tourism and agriculture, yet they are dependent on weather that allows entry and exit into the region. Many locals now retreat to Kathmandu in the winter, returning to Manang in time to welcome guests for the warmer months.
Prayer wheels greet visitors and accommodation caters to a variety of preferences and budgets. Travelers can sample one of the many Tibetan delicacies found in Manang: thukpa, a brothy noodle soup; tsampa, roasted barley flour mixed with butter and sugar; yak steak; and momos. Guesthouse owners accommodate foreign tastes with Western treats such as pizza, burgers, spaghetti, and an assortment of bakery items and cakes. No visit to Manang is complete without hot mugs of smoky ghiu chia, another welcoming tradition that has withstood the test of time.
Where to stay
Because all Manangis are exceptional hosts–warm, friendly, well versed, and open–anyone who has been to Manang will have strong opinions of which guesthouse is best.
Hotel Yeti is one of the oldest accommodations in Manang, providing rooms with attached bathrooms. The stone courtyard is a nice place for travelers to sip coffee (Italian Lavazza!) and enjoy slices of pie and pastries.
Chulli West Hotel also offers muffins and cupcakes to guests, along with stunning vistas of Manang’s mountains. It’s an ideal spot for creamy masala tea and warm apple crumble. Plus, when the sun is out, solar heating makes it possible to take a hot shower.
Tilicho Hotel offers slightly more rugged facilities, yet breakfasts are served with homemade plum jams and dal bhat is presented on the thick copper plates characteristic of the area. Trekkers will appreciate unlimited heapings of rice, lentil soup, and vegetables from the garden. For those craving Western fare, try a veggie burger set between thick seeded buns and sizeable potato fries.
The owner of Hotel Mountain Lake prides himself on his wildlife photography, having captured sightings of the coveted snow leopard. Avid photographers will enjoy his prints in the bright, natural dining room.
Things to do
Learn about traditional ways of living at the Culture Museum. Located on the main road near the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA), this museum is set up as an historic home, with clothing and lifestyle pieces native to the area. Time your visit so you can catch one of the HRA’s afternoon talks on mountain safety.
Several film halls have set up shop in Manang. If you want to get inspired for your travel adventures, catch a showing of Into the Wild, Everest, or Into Thin Air.
For those wanting more activity, visit Braka (Braga), a nearby village with one of the oldest monasteries in the area. Red and white paint flakes off houses, and Tibetan flags whip in the wind. Photographs taken here deserve framing once you return home.
With a bit of planning, add Tilicho Tal (lake) to your itinerary. The trail leading to the lake is challenging. Landslides have eroded the path, exposing sheer drops at nerve-inducing angles. You may not want to look down at the thin, spidery line below (that’s the gushing river!) but once you reach the lake, the turquoise blue Tilicho is a fantastic jewel among glaciers. Listen to ice crackle and the thunder of avalanches toppling in the distance.
When to go
For a truly unique experience, time your visit for Losar celebrations. The Tibetan New Year typically falls in February or March. During April and May, you’ll see men practicing archery skills and competing in horse races, traditions that have been passed from one generation to the next.
How to get there
Hike or drive from Besisahar, but be warned: this road can test even the hardiest mettle. Videos of the road have gone viral, and it’s described as one of the most dangerous in the world. You can ride a Jeep as far as Chame and begin your walk from there. If you do, the apple orchards at Bhratang make for a great stopping point for cider, apple pancakes, or even one night’s rest at the new guest house. Motorbikes can then be rented from Pisang for those wanting to quicken their arrival into Manang.
Top image: Doug Letterman/Flickr