Tsum Valley: Nepal’s Hidden Valley of Happiness

January 11, 2011

in Nepal


I’m not sure I want to tell you about the Hidden Valley of Happiness. You might decide to go there. Buddhist prayers carved into stone tablets line the trails of Tsum Valley, while snow-capped 6000m peaks appear beyond and between the vertiginous brown “hillsides”. Traditional culture pervades the area, with women spinning wool into thread by hand and friendly faces inviting you in for tea…or homemade alcohol.


Tsum Valley, known in sacred Buddhist texts as the Hidden Valley of Happiness, was opened only 3 years ago for tourism. Barely a lodge exists, and tourists are still welcomed as respected guests. Beginning on the main route into the Manaslu Conservation Area, you curve for days through a steep-sided gorge where the sun arrives mid-morning and departs well before sunset. Waterfalls abound, monkeys appear, and slate roofs top mud houses as you gradually climb 4000ft (1200m).

After 4-5 days, you will reach a narrow canyon sided by sheer boulders. This is the entry to Tsum, painted with the ubiquitous Buddhist blessing and mantra Om Mani Padme Hung in 3-foot Tibetan letters. One side has been blasted out to create a trail, but it’s clear the earlier route which skirted the high edge of the boulder on a few pieces of precariously placed wood is part of what kept this valley hidden. Beyond the gateway you will find the villages of Tsum at 8,000-12,000ft (2400-3700m). Trade with Kathmandu was so difficult that most goods came on yak caravans over the mountains from Tibet, rather than up from the hills of Nepal.


Begin your trek in steep-sided gorges...


...and climb to the high alpine valley of Tsum

Splitting from the main route, the trail becomes rougher, the villages are cleaner, the houses and culture are more Tibetan, and people are still guileless and genuine. Young girls are shy to have their photo taken but then become fascinated with seeing themselves displayed on the screen. Old women have yet to understand that you can’t take the picture from the camera immediately and give it to them. Men wear fur-lined hats brought over from Tibet and ride horses that jingle with strings of bells. Yak caravans loaded with rice, salt, and tea command the trail as they pass. People greet you with easy smiles and common questions, “Where are you from?…Where are you going?”.


Trails are lined with painted stupas, prayers carved into stone tablets, and sacred gateways.

Tsum Valley is believed to be a place where obstacles–spiritual and otherwise–have been removed. As such, it has long been an important religious area. The Buddhist saint Milarepa meditated in a secret cave here in the 11th century, and the valley remains home to over 200 nuns and monks today. You enter each village through a sacred gate, painted with faded pictures of protective deities to cleanse you of any evil spirits before you proceed. Most villages have a large community prayer wheel where women gather every month to fast and chant mantras. Esoteric rituals and mask dances are performed by lamas to purify the area.


Black-hat dancers purify the area of obstacles and evil spirits.


Mask dancers enact a Buddhist parable about a hunter and his wife.

The valley is also a protected area where killing is not allowed, and wildlife remains abundant compared to other areas of Nepal. You can hike all the way to the Tibetan border for staggering mountain views, easily spotting herds of Himalayan blue sheep and wild mountain goats along the way. The area monks at one point petitioned the government not to allow employees stationed at regional offices to kill animals for Hindu sacrifices or for meat. The government complied, respecting the local traditions and issuing a ban on killing in the area. Any meat must be killed below the gateway and then carried up higher. The peace and protection extends to all beings: as clients joked about yeti attacks, a lama assured us quite seriously that we didn’t need to worry, “Tsum is a protected area, and a yeti will not attack anyone here.”


A yak caravan returns home after delivering goods.

Daily life in the region is shaped by traditional skills and modern demands. The people of Tsum still have yak herds and carry on trade with Tibet, but they are importing electronics and crackers rather than salt and leather. They harvest Cordyceps, a high-altitude fungus that is prized in Chinese medicine and earns everyone much-needed cash. Children now go to Kathmandu for better education if they can afford it, but people continue to live in simple homes centered around a iron stove, eating barley porridge, pressing mustard seeds for oil, and brewing local wheat beer. We found ourselves repeatedly invited into the warmth of kitchens, where we were offered tea…or teacups filled with a smooth moonshine known as raaksi. We were fed barley soup and entertained by local women singing traditional songs in dark and cozy spaces.


Local hospitality: bottomless teacups of raaksi poured with a smile.

The allure of Tsum Valley is the unique blend of Nepal’s best offerings–big mountain views, numerous monasteries and nunneries, traditional culture, and friendly people–which will no doubt rapidly increase tourism in the area. Locals want the benefits that tourism can yield, and in a place with so few resources, tourism could bring immense economic benefit to the area. The challenge for Tsum is that everything which draws visitors is at risk as tourism expands. The the impact of tourism in nearby lower Manaslu is readily apparent. Campsites are littered with wrappers and garbage. Children accost you with pleas of, “Namaste pen!” and “Namaste balloon!”, having learned to beg for foreign delights. Adults watch you pass with bland disinterest.


To discourage begging, play games with children instead of handing out sweets or pens.


Campsite litter cleanups demonstrate that we value clean spaces.

In Tsum, 2010 saw triple the number of visitors as 2009, but the total was still less than 500 people. This is a critical time to implement socially and environmentally responsible tourism, which is the duty of the Tsum Welfare Committee, the Manaslu Conservation Area Project (MCAP), and the tourists who visit. How can you help? Here are a few ideas:

  • We organized campsite cleanups, paying $1/porter for people collecting litter. They filled large bags quickly!
  • We wanted to see our money going into local hands, so we employed at least 50% local porters. For all of them, it was their first time working with a tourist group. They were excited about the income, and we were able to learn more about their lives and culture.
  • When we checked in to the conservation area, we asked MCAP staff to facilitate the hiring of local porters and placement of appropriate garbage facilities.
  • Instead of offering candy and handouts to children on the trail, we offered them “tickles”, chasing after them, playing with them, and trying to find a positive way to interact without encouraging begging.
  • To delve into the religion and culture, we invited a lama to accompany us as a dharma teacher on our trek. He gave us explanations of Buddhist beliefs and heritage, guided morning meditations, arranged a special blessing ceremony, and opened doors to the homes of family and friends.
  • We made regular donations at each monastery we visited to help with preservation, restoration, and daily care.
  • We included at least one trek staff member who was from Tsum and had local connections to people along the way. He arranged local porters and also had our whole group to his house for tea.

The key to enjoying Tsum’s local culture and heritage is to travel with local staff. It is their friends and family who will welcome you into homes and honor you as a guest. As tourism grows, this sort of personal welcome and connection will be hard to maintain. The coming few years will be the best time to explore Tsum, while the trails remain quiet and tourists continue to be unusual guests.

–Deana Zabaldo is a professional guide specializing in Nepal and Bhutan. For in-depth innovative travel, visit www.parahamsa.com. For information on Tsum, visit the Tsum Welfare Committee at www.tsumvalley.org.

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