Bounded in the west by the Barbung Khola and Dolpo and in the east by the Buri Gandaki, the mountains of central Nepal are dominated by the Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Manaslu Himalaya.Unlike the peaks in other parts of the country, these ranges are not sheltered from the onslaught of the monsoon by lesser, intervening chains of cloud-snaring hills. Consequently they receive almost double the country’s average annual precipitation, and the glaciers tumbling from their snowy heights reach far into the valleys below. To the north of these mountains lie arid tracts of land which are geographically part of Tibet, inhabited by Bhotias and yet still within Nepal. A circuit of any of the main three rages is thus not only a varied scenic experience, but a journey through culturally diverse lands.
Annapurna may be the celebrity among the peaks here, but its unsung and loftier neighbours are every bit as sensational. To the north of Manaslu lies Nupri, north of Annapurna lies Manang and north of Dhaulagiri, mustang. Within a matter of hours you can escape from the most developed, tourist-filled villages and trails in the country and find yourself amongst obscure peaks and valleys on paths that few feet tread.
Dividing the main Himalayan chain in central Nepal are the deep chasms of three ancient valleys. Rising on the arid Tibetan Plateau, the kali Gandaki, Marsyangdi and Buri Gandaki rivers flow between peaks that exceed 8000m (2624ft) . as the valley floors here are at approximately 2200m (7218ft), these are often claimed to be the deepest gorge, is a misnomer; they are generally vast defiles that only occasionally narrow into what could rightfully be called a gorge.
The Kali Gandaki is of great bio-geographical significance, as it is generally accepted to be the dividing line between the eastern and western Himalaya. To the west plant species are mostly Mediterranean and Eurasian, while to the east they tend to be Southeast Asian. The Flemings, Nepal’s most celebrated ornithologists, further identity this valley as demarcating eastern and western avifauna. The landscape and climate is suitably dramatic for a divide of such importance, with the giant snowfield air-coolers of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri sending ferocious blasts of gritladen air northwards up-valley towards Mustang every afternoon.
All three main valleys have served as trade routes for centuries. The kali Gandaki in particular has long sustained large Thakali Merchant villages –hence its local name, the Thak Khola. Until they brought rock salt, wool, butter and livestock from Tibet and exchanged them for rice, barley, sugar, tea, tobacco and spices from Nepal and India. The trade continues illicitly today, but has been undermined by the growing availability of manufactured salt from India (one positive effect of this is that Indian salt contains iodine, reducing the incidence of goiter). Although the Thakalis of villages such as Tukche and Marpha have since turned their hands to tourism, fruit growing and other forms of trade, the area has declined economically and many have chosen to move to Pokhara and Kathmandu, leaving their magnificent houses standing empty.
To a lesser extent, the same has happened to Nyeshang in the upper Marsyangdi valley. This area has become popularly known by the name of its largest village, Manang, and businessmen from these parts have a long establishment reputation for being both keen and astute. When prithivi narayan shah unified the country at the end of the 18th century, the Nyeshang-pa successfully negotiated a set of unique international trading privileges for themselves. These still apply today, and have been instrumental in maintaining the pre-eminent position of the manangis in commerce. Many own large hotels in Kathmandu and are involved in trading gold, precious stones and manufactured goods bought in Bangkok and Singapore. Most of the ‘antiques’ hawked to tourists along the trails around Annapurna were in fact manufacturers in southeast Asia- very few real old Nepalese and Tibetan artefacts are left today.
The immediate vicinity of Pokhara is largely populated by Chhetris and Brahmin, with a visible Thakali minority, whilst the surrounding hills ar4e mainly home to Gurungs. British Gurkha regiments have long recruited here, and consequently the remittance dollars and cosmopolitan attitudes of soldiers returning from abroad have given the place a greater degree of worldliness than elsewhere in Nepal. Pokhara may not have the rich cultural and architectural heritage of the Kathmandu valley, but it is surrounded by lush rural countryside and commands peerless Himalayan views from its lakeside location.