In the mountain village of Koto, Nepal, there is a path that branches off the legendary 150-mile Annapurna Circuit and passes—ceremoniously, tantalizingly—through a large stone gate. This trail is off-limits, a nearby sign reads, unless you have a registered guide and a special permit.
Luckily, I’ve got both. I proceed through the stone portal with my guide, Ian, and I pause to spin three Buddhist prayer wheels. With this simple gesture, I leave one of the world’s most popular trails (sadly, the Annapurna Circuit is also known as the “Coca-Cola Circuit”) and head north into the Forbidden Valley, also known as the Nar-Phu Valley, a Himalayan region where Western visitors are comparatively few and far between.
I’m traveling with Epic Tomato, a new expedition-focused venture from the U.K.-based travel company Black Tomato. Epic Tomato specializes in getting well-traveled, thrill-seeking clients like myself off the grid for serious adventures far away from the normal, more casual tourist circuits.
I’ve gotten off the beaten path before, hiking through the backcountry of Zion National Park in Utah and the Himalayan foothills in India. What makes this trek different is that despite the remoteness, you encounter people who actually live in the mountains you’re hiking.
This ancient route opened to limited trekking in 2003. The trickle of tourists has brought small changes such as new wire suspension bridges and widened ledges—improvements that make the journey slightly less mythic than it once was, and considerably less harrowing. But remarkably, the valley, and the lifestyle of its inhabitants, are much the same as they were centuries ago.
Hours after spinning the prayer wheels in Koto, we are well on our way to the next village, Phu. Inaccessible by road and three days away by foot, Phu is one of the most remote villages in Asia.
The path is cut into a rock face high above the Phu River. To my right, a slope bursts with tall pines and firs; to my left I stare down at the rumbling river. At one point, I squeeze myself against a ledge to let a donkey train pass underneath a waterfall. Later on, I find myself behind a lone villager.
After spending the night in a rustic campsite, we start hiking at seven the next morning; soon the deep, narrow gorge opens and we find ourselves on a terraced plateau dotted with wind-bent junipers. Pisang Peak rises into perfect blue skies; across the river sits a red-roofed monastery. In the late afternoon, we pitch our tents amid a jumble of abandoned, straw-roofed homes. I sit atop one, thinking big thoughts and eventually none at all.
The landscape becomes yet more austere on day three, as we hit 13,000 feet and counting. We arrive at Phu, a honeycomb of simple, flat-roofed houses packed onto a hillside. A dusty village hemmed in by mountains, Phu is a place of scant resources. Piles of firewood, gathered on long, back-breaking walks, double as insulation. Yak herders shout at each other across the hills. “Nepali cell phone,” Ian jokes.
The next morning, I wake before everyone around me. I leave my tent to contemplate the fading stars when I notice the outline of a villager trudging toward me. He’s heading into the hills, a basket on his back, and as he passes me in the half-light, he gives me a knowing smile—as though, today at least, we belong to the same brotherhood of early risers.
The Tibetan border is two days’ walk to the north but closed to foreigners. I exit the village by the same route I entered and begin the two-day journey back. It’s a rapid comedown, and not just in terms of altitude. I felt like a privileged guest in this isolated land of rock and wind, where the solitude was as intense as any I’ve ever felt, even as I shared it with people who have inhabited the Nar-Phu Valley for centuries.
See video Darrell Hartman shot on his trip. Nar-Phu Valley Trek with Epic Tomato, (888) 341-9663, epictomato.com. From $9,189 for a 15-day trip including meals, accommodations, and charter flights within Nepal. This appeared in the July/August 2012 issue.