Imagine there's a 3rd highest mountain on earth and nobody knows about it. That's almost true with Kangchenjunga, a summit at the border of Eastern Nepal and Sikkim. The massif is 8'586 meters high and surrounded by dozens of peaks a little 'smaller' though not any less stupendous. So far the area has been largely ignored by tourists.
But that's not all the region has to offer.We fly in and start our trek in Suketar, a small airstrip in the low hills. Just a few dozen miles south of the towers of eternal ice, but still quite a different world. Dense forests and rice terraces cover the gentle hillsides which will become steeper and more barren during our hike towards the "Five Treasuries of the Great Snow", as locals call the massif.
The people in the hills are Rai and Limbu and mainly live on agriculture and a little husbandry. The small hamlets are spread over the hills, if it weren't for the white and orange houses the terraced hillsides would look like a gigantic natural green pyramid.
We follow the Tamur river upstream, cross endless sidevalleys on suspension bridges or more traditional wooden bridges. After the confluence of the wild Ghunsa Khola the scenery starts to change. Neither fields or fruit trees surround the village of Amjilosa, a few houses situated on a severly exposed hillside. The valleys become more narrow, ascents are steeper and the dense forests change their appearance. Firs and cedar take the place of large ferns and broad-leafed trees. Rhododendrons are blooming, flowers sprout on the alpine pastures.
Phala is the first bigger Tibetan settlement, at the town's entrance we are greeted by prayerflags and chortens. The people dwelling here are of Tibetan origin and adapted well to living at high altitude. Instead of buffalos or cows people keep small herds of yaks. Potatoes have replaced rice as staple diet. The last snow melted just days ago and the villagers in Ghunsa are busy ploughing the fields and planting new potatoes. During the day temperatures are pleasant, but our first night at 3'500 meters is cold. Acclimatization is essential, and we spend another day exploring the interesting village and its surroundings.
As we approach Kangbachen, we slowly move above the timberline where glaciers and rock dominate the scenery. The stupendous view of Jannu makes me stare in awe; its vertical rock face reaches high into the sky and towers above all other peaks.
We walk along the glacier to Lhonak where we will put up base camp for the coming excursions. Nightly snowfall makes the scenery even more enchanting. Some of us will explore a valley leading to the Tibet, others walk towards Kangchenjunga's north base camp. A steep wall, intermingled with several glaciers and a summit 8'586 meters high, the mountain was climbed 1955, the first climbers in 1905 all died in an avalanche.
Dozens of peaks are crammed around the massif. One of the smaller mountains is Tengkoma, a steep scree slope that ends in a snow dome. We will try to climb it, from its summit at 6'215 meters you can see even Mount Everest on clear days.
After 20 days it is time to start to retrace our steps and head back to Suketar airport.
28th March 2001: Kathmandu - Biretnagar
Since my arrival in Kathmandu two days earlier I was busy visiting friends. Usually I am itching to get out of the city, this time I wouldn't mind staying a little longer.
Getting to the starting point of the trek on roads is often the most strenuous part of the whole adventure. Luckily we skip the 40-hour bus drive and take domestic flights instead. First a small airplane to Biretnagar, second-largest city in Nepal, from there to Taplejung. Traffic jam between Boudha and Thamel makes me a bit nervous, usually flights are delayed but I wouldn't have been surprised if the first ever punctual flight out of KTM had happened while I sat in the taxi miles away from the airport. Luckily I get a few minutes too early to Thamel and have enough time to drop off my stuff at the Hotel Utse and make reservations for the few days I am alone after the trek.
After buying some essential snacks (note for next time: buy packaged cheese) I hop on the bus that leaves for the airport. The chaos on the roads and in the domestic airport is smaller than usual, indicating off-season. Everything goes very smoothly and almost on time we squeeze in the tiny seats of the Twin Otter.
Due to haze no mountains appear on the left side. The terraces on the hills below are very dry and dominated by tones of brown and red. Last winter was droughty and everybody is hoping for rain since the rice harvest will be in danger otherwise.
As we approach Biretnagar, the hills become flatter and eventually give way to an endless plain covered by wide fields in different colors. Groups of straw huts are built among fields with little roads connecting them. The basis and rhythm of life is still the same for the majority of the 20 million Nepalis. Western ideas and products are also penetrating into their lives but this does not lead to fundamental changes yet.
Biretnagar is a large town near the Indian border. Brick and concrete houses and shops follow the few main roads, further out the farms become more numerous. It is an odd mix of 1960's 'modernity' and congenial shabbiness. A jeep takes us from the airport to the town's best hotel. The atmosphere is relaxed but since there is not much to see I keep my walk pretty short. Haze makes the heat bearable, though it is still very hot compared to Kathmandu, even more so after the cold spring temperatures in Switzerland.
The Hotel 'Eastern View' has good fans and comfortable beds: I finally catch up on some sleep that I lost while preparing the trip 4 days before it started. To begin trekking with fatigue is definitely not recommended. The delicious Indian dinner blows me away. I overeat on vegetable curries, naans, papadams and rice; my full stomach and the heat makes it difficult to fall asleep.
So far I did not get to know the other trekkers well; I stayed in Boudha and only met them once for a short dinner. I share a room with John, a quiet investment banker from Chicago. At night all of a sudden he jumps up, acts like a total freak and goes back to sleep. After the second time I am a bit scared, but later enjoy a good sleep till 6 o'clock when we get up for breakfast. As it turns out, John is sleepwalking. At least he could have warned me.
Joel Schoene is leading the trek. He's a friend of Jamie, equally addicted to the Himalayas though more specialized in Ladakh and not a fan of climbing. He's easygoing and more of an organizer than a tough leader, which suits me fine.
Dave Haun, a cave-explorer from the US, was in the area two years earlier and came back to explore a pass into Tibet. He's a nice guy. Eric is another cave-explorer, very funny and more culturally aware and respectful than some 'second-timers'. Emma from England is about my age. Bonny has been travelling for the last few years. Nicole from France speaks a little Tibetan and despite being very greedy when it comes to chocolate cookies, is a lot of fun. Cynthia is a part-time photographer from Canada. Lucy is from Washington, DC. The oldest of the group is Rein, a retired space engineer who enjoys travelling and is in very good shape.
Everybody seems nice, though my guess is that life-lasting bonds of friendship will probably not be tied on this trek.
Biretnagar - Suketar - Jogidanda (Day 2)
A second flight will take us further north where the valleys lead to the mountains. Even though it is still early morning when we take off, haze is already in the air and hides the mountains in the northwest where even Makalu (8'481 m) can be seen on clear days.
The rivers from the mountains are nearly dried out. It is arid; the first small hills are so barren that they might well be in the Sahara. The hills get larger, after half an hour the pilot aims at the top of a nearby hill with steep drops on each side. On the saddle is Suketar airport! Compared to other STOLs (Short Take Off and Landing), it is quite long and wide, thus landing does not seem as breakneck as in other places. A few meters after the sheer drop the pilot sets the plane down, and stops near the gate.
The views over the the hills and a nice breeze of mountain air make me realize how much I missed the experience of trekking.
People have lined up along the fence, most of them are bored locals but then I spot our crew. Bagman worked as a kitchen boy on the last Manaslu tour and seems sincerely happy to see me. I feel the same. The loads are carried to a nearby guesthouse and the Sirdar Ram Kaji organizes the reshuffling of the loads. This usually takes an hour or two, in the meantime I walk around town. There is not much to see, but I am surprised to find a Buddhist gompa so far south and speak to an old Sherpa woman who speaks proper Tibetan and has a key for the main door. The monastery is well-kept, but is not used very often and does not contain anything exceptional.
While we enjoy drinks and biscuits the sound of a small airplane can be heard, instead of landing it circles once above the airstrip but then it does arrive. It's a chartered tourist flight from Kathmandu, the other group is not happy to see us since they wanted to trek 'all alone'. Their direct flight from Kathmandu yesterday was not allowed to land, because the locals were very upset that they are not offered good flight connections therefore they blocked the airstrip and the tourists had to return to Kathmandu. The same thing would have happened today if Yeti Airways hadn't made some concessions.
After lunch we start our easy half-day walk to the campsite. The wide trail goes slightly down into a wide valley covered by forests and terraces and dozens of small hamlets. The beautiful houses of the Rai people are built in small groups, their appearance is a similar to the ones in central Nepal but the Rai houses are much neater: two or three stories high with a thatched roof and a small wooden balcony, the walls are plastered and painted orange and white. Everything is arranged very neatly and often symbols are painted on the outside. The kitchen is on the ground floor in the largest room with an open fireplace and a wooden cupboard with shining plates, cups and cooking utensils. This room is also used as a living room, especially when temperatures are colder. Above the living room are the sleeping quarters. Animals, mainly goats, are kept in a separate building where the fodder is stored. People live largely self-sufficient on the rice and corn they grow on their fields. Oranges, bananas and apples are a welcome side dish, the trees offer welcome shade around the house. Those who can afford keep goats, pigs and chickens in small numbers. During the day the oldest child watches the house while the rest of the family is out with the goats or works in the fields. We do not meet many people.
The Rai and Limbu culture is different from the Hindu and Buddhist culture, but it is hard to find books about it. I assume that they face similar problems like the Lepchas in Sikkim, who are the indigenous people but are threatened to be marginalized by the two other predominant cultures, especially Hinduism. To my surprise some Sherpa families have also moved down to the middle hills.
It is a nice walk on ridges and through forests with some small creeks coming from higher up. It is partly cloudy and no mountains are visible at the horizon, but everybody enjoys the stroll in the warm sunshine, happy to be so far away from the chaos in Kathmandu and the heat in Biretnagar.
In the afternoon we reach Jogidanda where we camp near the school. 10 teachers take care of 500 young students, many of whom went back home already but some are still playing while we put up the tents. The American group has fled (either because of us or because of the kids who crowd around the tents) and chose another campground, The kids are well behaved and speak good English, an interesting conversation starts. Some of the kids even understand my simple Tibetan. It is also an example of the harmony between Nepal's different cultures and people; some of them are Rai, some Sherpas, some Gurung, and though they are aware of 'who is who' it is not a barrier. This 'harmony' is often propagated by the ruling elite (mainly Brahmins and Chettris) who call every demand for more autonomy or de-centralization disrespectfully 'communal'. It is the high castes who often use their superior status in an unfair way to keep their material wealth and social status.
The Maoists partly explain their success with the autonomy they give to local people. Whether that is the leadership's genuine interest or just a lure is hard to say. Somehow it sounds like Mao's speeches 50 years ago, as soon as securely in power the only culture tolerated was the doctrine of the Communist Party.
Western Nepal is probably the most neglected region and gets little attention from the government in Kathmandu. No wonder that's where the insurgency started and was so 'successful' after four years that the area was in effect governed by the Maoists. Though they are active in almost all parts of the country, Central and Eastern Nepal are safe. Since tourists were never attacked, you could probably also trek in Western Nepal and only risk of being asked for 'donations', or bandits posing as Maoists will steal your camera. During this trek I do not see any sign of Maoist activity.
Dinner is enjoyable though I still feel full after yesterday's Indian meal. But calories burn quickly while trekking, so I don't worry.
Jogidanda - Chirwa (Day 3)
Somebody started packing way before the agreed time which caused a chain-reaction: the kitchen was confused, porters were suddenly waiting for everybody to get up. It is quite hot by the time we are ready to leave after a rich breakfast. It takes some days to get into the routine of organizing yourself in the morning, the kitchen crew probably has the same problem.
Creeks flows down the sidevalleys which we cross on wooden bridges. Despite the dry heat the forests are very lush. Cardamom that grows between the trees is the only cash crop of the middle hills; it is harvested in autumn and sold in market places further south where it sells for $5 per kilo and is used as medicine, spice and natural sweetener. As soon as we get out of the forest's shade the fields are very barren. The Rai houses become more picturesque, ornaments are painted on its walls, rails are painted black and white, and corn is laid over bamboo frames for drying. At the entrance of a village we walk beneath a 'gate' with green branches atop, maybe that's the lowland version of the chortens we will encounter further north in the Buddhist settlements.
The descents and ascents after lunch are a good opportunity to get in shape. We walk mostly high above the river, enjoying the fresh smell of plants and the views down the hillside where green wheat sprouts on the terraced fields. Plank suspension bridges in decent conditions take us over the sidevalleys, reducing the up's and down's considerably. The valley is getting more and more narrow, the flanks become too steep for agriculture and at the end of the day we walk close to the river. Our second camp lies between wheat fields and the Tamur river. Chirwa does not have the charm of the Rai hamlets, partly because its location between huge boulders at the valley floor, but mainly because it is a bit shabby and the people are not as friendly as before. Luckily the campsite lies ten minutes after the village, we escape 'civilization' and enjoy the evening on the quiet place where the roaring of the river is the only 'disturbance'. Dark clouds prevent me from swimming, as soon as we start dinner a heavy storm hits the valley. For the next ten minutes we are busy securing the tents and digging trenches around them. Although the lightning lasts for awhile longer, the downpour becomes less strong and almost stops when we go to bed.
As usually I am in bed early, read for half an hour before falling asleep, and wake up 10 hours later shortly before bed-tea around 630. That is, after getting used to howling dogs, roaring rivers or roosters.
Chirwa- Sekathum (Day 4)
Before the arrival of morning tea the chirping birds wake me and I open the tent: it is a beautiful clear and cool morning. During the night all clouds disappeared. The storm appears to have polished everything in sight; the sky is cloudless, dust was washed off the trees, even the grass seems greener. These first moments of the day are always great, lying and dozing in the sleeping bag you get to enjoy the smells and sounds (and with a little extra effort even sights) of the Himalayas.
After morning tea arrives we start packing. The porters usually leave while we are having breakfast. Often we will catch up with them two hours later when they are having their early lunch (or late breakfast): a huge pile of rice with lentils, and potatoes or other vegetables, if available. While we are having our lunch at noon, they pass us, we'll arrive in camp at about the same time.
The walk in the forest is very pleasant, the temperatures in the shade are perfect and the refreshing smell is invigorating. The trail follows the river and is less strenuous than yesterday. Cardamom groves are in the forest, wheat was planted recently on the hillside and everything seems nicer than yesterday. The flat valley near Tapethok must look even more idyllic in autumn's harvest season: young birch trees grow next to large black boulders; slightly terraced fields stretch to the foot of hills where the terraces continue. The surrounding hillsides look like steps of an amphitheater with neat houses and patches of forest on its steps.
The scenery remains the same for the rest of the morning. The kitchen crew overtook us and has already set up their stoves when we arrive after three hours of easy walking. I take a refreshing shower in a nearby rivulet and doze until lunch is ready. For the first time I feel really hungry and look forward to the meal.
The sun shines fiercely, luckily I brought my umbrella that will prove to be a great thing to have. Some group members see trekking as an opportunity for sunbathing, in addition to walking in unacceptable clothes they lie half-naked in the sun. Well, I guess as long as Joel does not complain I am not entitled to say anything.
Despite the umbrella it is too hot for a nap and I am off soon after dessert. The bridge over the creek in Tamewa is swaying more than usual and quite a few planks are missing. Since the water level is low I prefer jumping across on some stones. Some climbs in the hot afternoon sun take us high above the river, it is dry and dusty as if no storm had passed during the night. Lizards on the stones are the only animals I see, usually birds and butterflies make walking more interesting. Some colorful flowers grow in the shade of huge ferns, far down the green Tamur river roars.
Our camping spot is at the entrance to one of the side valleys in the east. High above us on the other side stands a long line of prayerflags that go up to a Buddhist monastery. We cross the first sidevalley on a suspension bridge, after another climb in the sun we enter forest again. Below is the Ghunsa Khola river that has its source in the Kangchenjunga glaciers. Sekathum lies on a plateau above the junction of the two rivers, two large campsites are further down on each side of the bridge. I find a nice spot near the river where boulders form a little pool and take a very, very refreshing bath. At first the body feels numb, after ten seconds it is bearable and eventually pleasant. My dislike for frigid water seems to wane with every trekking. I do laundry, take another short bath and sit in the hot sun to get dry. I enjoy 'bathing' in the Himalayas, not because I am paranoid of smell, I just love water. Some friends at home call me 'the human fish'.
The wide lawn is a nice campsite, our crew stays in the teahouse, or tongba-house to be more exact. Tongba is a popular alcoholic beverage made out of fermented millet that is put in a large wooden vessel, hot water is added and the alcoholic mixture is sucked out with a straw to keeps the millet at the bottom. It is quite mild and tastes nice, a little bitter, though more impressive than the actual drink are the 'cups': often they look like miniature wooden barrels with a polished brass banding, the straw is made of bamboo. 'Tongba' is also the Tibetan word for 'empty', maybe this is how the drink got its name since hot water refills are free and when it's empty people might have said: 'Tongba ray, lu-ro-nang'. (It's empty, please fill it up.) Admittedly, this is just my own theory.
The kitchen crew prepares dinner in the adjacent room. So far they have mostly kept to themselves, Bagman has developed some very polite and funny ways of staying away from tourists he doesn't like. Mege is a good cook, his food is not as delicious as Tenba's but nobody will get sick during the next few weeks, which is quite an achievement. Bagman does some work in the kitchen, serves the food and also works as assistant Sherpa during the day. His English has improved a lot since our Manaslu trek and he seems to be a good allrounder - he's also worked as cook on climbing expeditions before.
Punctually like yesterday the storm arrives, but is less strong and seems to move over us. As long as it rains only at night I am happy about it, maybe I will get the experience the lush beautiful scenery on the way down, including the blooming rhododendron forest that we missed so far.
Sekathum - Amjilosa (Day 5)
Shortly before morning tea, a cock's crow wakes me at 600. It is a fine morning once again, warm at the valley floor but there's snow at the end of the valley, behind the ridge towers a big summit. A trail goes up the precipitous valley wall and then disappears behind a curve. Joel wants us to walk together because the exposure is severe and there are some crucial junctions. I slow down at first but then pass the others to get warm and stop for breaks more often than usual. The trail is narrow, straight drops go down to the river far down in the valley. It reminds me a little of southern France where the water runs in constants rapids between boulders in narrow gorges, the steep wall covered by bushes and trees.
Of course some people of our group went ahead and missed the junction. Since no Sherpa is there to run after them we all have to follow 'their' route, instead of climbing up and haveinglunch near a waterfall we stay close to the Ghunsa Khola, cross it first and then follow it on the other side. It is another rough climb on a narrow slippery trail. A tremendous waterfall end in big sprays before reaching the bottom. Colorful trees and red bushes add to the nice views that reward the extra-effort and little detour. And when I see the lunch spot I am not unhappy that we went this way.
The river has formed a shallow pool half an hour further up, it is an enchanting place: rocks form a large swimming pool with turquoise water, overhung by trees, a shallow but slippery entrance invites for a swim. It is colder than the previous day in the river and I'm in the water only the very five seconds it takes for a good picture. My stomach finally got used to Nepali spices and kitchen hygiene and I fully enjoy a triple portion of lunch.
On the map today's walk looked like a gentle stroll along the river, and then a little climb to camp. The endless ups and downs before lunch were a little tiring, but when we get a little farther ahead and see the place for tonight, some sighs can be heard.
High above us on the opposite valley wall is a solitary cluster of three houses: Amjilosa. After crossing on an iron bridge it is a tough climb up, the river gets smaller but the houses don't seem any closer. Once again it surprising to see how far you can walk in a short time, and in the middle of the afternoon we reach the three houses where we will put up camp. The term 'we will put up camp' is slightly misleading; usually it is our crew who does it while the tourists (with a few noble exceptions) literally stand around and complain when the tent-entrance faces the 'wrong' way. I spend moost of the time with the crew and the few cool tourists.
It'd be interesting to learn about the villages we pass, but I couldn't find any literature on them. This town's name could mean 'The Place of the Doctor in the South', but again it is speculation. The people who live her are clearly of Tibetan origin and follow Tibetan New Year's ritual. A sure sign of getting into high country.
Rain starts a bit earlier; the porter carrying my bag just as the downpour starts. It also gets chilly after sunset, the mix of cold, wetness and mud is uncomfortable: time to retreat to the sleeping bag with a good book, a hot drink and Swiss chocolate. It's tempting to hibernate in my tent, but then soup and popcorn lure us to the mess tent.
Amjilosa - Gyabla (Day 6)
It must have been really cold last night; snow has fallen far down and lies like a fine powder on the surrounding hills. It is a nice contrast to the dense fir forest and the high yellow grass we walk through. And the sky is cloudless again. The forest is changing its face, instead of lush broad-leafed trees it becomes less dense and the leaves on the rhododendrons are still small.
After the first climb the valley bends and more snowy hills appear. They are pretty low and not part of the Kangchenjunga range, but nevertheless it is a taste of what's to come. We climb up to pass the precipitous hillside below and get into small patches of forest. Then it's a gradual descend towards the river. More trees grow along its bank, but the valley is too steep for agriculture on a large scale and thus the population is small. In Thyangyam we stop for awhile, allowing the kitchen crew to catch up. The lunch spot is not as close as promised by Joel, which is fine with me. Every minute of more ups and downs will increase my appetite and make the lunch taste even better than normal. A clearing in the forest next to a waterfall is a pleasant spot for rest, well worth the longer walk in the morning. The porters have eaten their dal baht somewhere on the way and overtake us while we wait for our much-needed calories. I wouldn't mind eating rice and lentils every day, in fact I would enjoy it, but most tourists are sick of it after the third time so we get more varied food.
After dal baht we continue in the pleasant forest along the Ghunsa Khola. While climbing up the last big steps in a gully prayerflags fluttering in the wind above us, a minute later we reach a green plateau. A few wooden houses are surrounded by wheat fields, more buildings are on a second plateau higher up. The main village is built on an elevation above, but instead of exploring this afternoon I help put up the tents and engage in a fun game of Frisbee with our crew.
The views are getting more alpine, big snow-capped mountains rise into the cloudy sky high above a waterfall. It was a beautiful day until late afternoon, again we have rain at late night but it is not as chilly as the previous evening and everybody is in a good mood.
Gyabla - Ghunsa (Day 7)
It took longer than usual but now I am finally in 'trekking shape'. This includes not only physical fitness, probably more important is the ability to enjoy every step and all the different sights, sounds and smells. And I am in the mood for side-trips.
I was told that the 'real' village lies on the plateau higher up so I leave early after breakfast and climb the little hill. Wheat was planted recently and the offshoot covers most of the gentle slope. A dozen wooden houses with shingled roofs stand far away from each other, most of them are (temporarily?) deserted. This does not make the solitary walk less enjoyable, the views down the valley are nice. After a tough climb through rosehips bushes on steep goat trails I join the main trail before it crosses a small creek and soon catch up with the others in the forest. Huge pine trees covered by moss and fern dominate the scenery, giving the trees the impression of ancient giants guarding the valley. Landslides from higher up have ripped through the forest, but now everything is stable and we get ahead quickly. After following the rapids for most of the morning, a little climb takes us to an open pasture.
If a final indication of my trekking-mood was needed, here it comes: appetite. I'm very hungry and envy the porters who are cooking their dal baht 'on the trail', two hours later we reach some houses and stop there for our lunch. The prospect of a filling meal cannot suppress a feeling of disappointment: I thought we have lunch in Phale, one of the largest Tibetan villages in the area. And now that we are here the village is not interesting nor is anybody else there. The houses seem shabby and the fields are not looked after.
Luckily this was not Phale, just a little 'suburb'. Twenty minutes later prayerflags on a big boulder announce the large settlement. The monastery overlooks the settlement that lies on a clearing, bordered by forested valley walls. The courtyard in front of the wooden gompa is the meeting place of the upper part of the village. A few women and some monks sit in the sun and chat. The women wear the traditional dress: a simple chuba with an apron and a large silver belt. The monks are from the Gelugpa sect and wear red robes over yellow shirts. The two novices are not knowledgeable, one of the older monks puts aside a beautiful orange piece of cloth with Buddhist symbols, unlocks the door that was hidden behind it and shows me in the Walung monastery. It is a relatively well-lit room and without the usual strong smell of butter lamps. A lot of statues and paintings are put on the altar or hang at the ceiling. Some of it looks quite old, but except for a nice statue of Chenrezi (Avalokiteshvara) and some thangkas the artifacts don't seem to have a large artistic value. The community is too small to support an affluent gompa.
The group we quickly met in Suketar has arrived and a rumor will have it that they dislike us because of the offending clothing of some of us. I cannot blame them for feeling that way. But they are not very respectful either when they enter the monastery with shoes and hats. I stay there for some time and play and chat with the kids. The rest of the group has left for Ghunsa, another big village three hours further up the valley where we will stay for two days. I try to hurry to escape the clouds that have built up at the end of the valley.
While passing a construction site in the village I meet a woman who carries a big log. I offer to help. Five logs and fifteen minutes later I really have to say good-bye. Hopefully I will have some time on the way down to spend a day here. So far these encounters were rare and I really start to miss them.
A small creek forms the town's end, just afterwards is the school building. School is finished and most children have already left, the few who are still there are more amused than impressed when I read from their Tibetan schoolbooks. Two teachers are still there, one of them speaks English. The school is partly financed by the Nepal and the Tibetan government-in-exile. I am surprised to hear that the Nepalese government supports schools where local culture is learned. In addition to that Nepal increasingly clamps down on Tibetan activities in order to please its big donor China. Westerners who have their own school projects have told me that one positive effect of the Maoists is that schools are forced to changes they long resisted, like accepting children from low-caste families or teaching local language and customs.
The clouds have nearly caught up with me and I have to leave early again. In retrospect the walk from Phale to Ghunsa is the most idyllic one during the whole trek: after passing a water-driven prayerwheel and a natural threefold chorten covered by moss, a lovely forest begins. The variety of trees and bushes is immense, it is not dense and patches of grass grow between the big boulders. Yellow and green moss is the dominant color in the dense forest that grows along the river. Bridges cross the many waterfalls and small creeks that come from the steep valley wall.
I start running to escape a possible downpour, so despite my long stops in Phale I overtake most of our group just as Ghunsa comes in sight. After a bend in the river I see the village on the other side. A wooden bridge decorated with colorful prayerflags takes me over the river and I enter the village where I quickly find our cook Mege who went ahead. Then it starts to drizzle very lightly - I made it just in time.
Ghunsa consists of three dozen wooden buildings that are distributed evenly on a level clearing. The houses are built in clusters, stone-paved trails connect them. The main road disppears in a lovely forest of firs and pines to the north, on one side snow-covered mountains and lofty pinnacles of rock tower over the village that is bordered by the river. All houses share the same architecture: wooden cottages with a large balcony, stable beneath, and a roof covered by wooden shingles and stones, and two small firs with prayerflags to ward off evil spirits. People own the house they live in, some of their fields are adjacent to their house, others are further away.
According to the name, people live in the village only during winter (ghun -winter; sah - place), but nobody has moved higher up yet.
The campsite is not very big and might turn muddy soon. Since we stay here for two nights for acclimatization it worth looking for a nice lodge. Tourist infrastructure is not as developed as in other areas of Nepal, but there are some lodges to choose from and it does not take me long to find a good room. The few tourists we meet have just come down from Kangbachen and are dissappointed: snow fell every day for a week - not in huge amounts but enough to cause serious discomfort for the porters. To prevent a potential mutiny they decided to turn around and will try tomorrow to cross another pass to the east.
Ghunsa lies at 3'500 m where temperatures are considerably colder, especially after sunset. Instead of putting up the mess tent we stay in the lodge, the last frozen toes are warmed up by the soup.
Ghunsa - Rest Day (Day 8)
I was afraid it'd be terribly cold in my large chamber, but the newspaper on the wall keeps most of the cold wind out. I enjoy a cozy night and wake up at sunrise with sound of talking from the living room below. First I scratch the ice from the inside of the window and see the American group crawling out of their frost-covered tents. The sky is dark blue, some mountains are in the orange rays of the rising sun. It is cold but very dry and thus not uncomfortable. At 700 I walk over to our camp just in time for breakfast tea.
All the locals got up quite awhile ago and are already at work. Kids carry yak dung from the stables to the fields. They throw it on several piles that are scattered over the field and return to get the next load. The smaller kids help and play on the fields, the older ones are probably in school.
Since the coming days will offer great mountain scenes, strenuous day hikes are not advisable and I stroll around the village instead. The regular trail to Ghunsa along the river misses the chorten that is built further up overlooking the valley. For some reason this is a very solemn place, very quiet, surrounded by small juniper bushes that rustle in the cool breeze. The paintings on the ceiling must have been renewed some time ago, the color and clay on the outside is crumbling, but this does not take away the charm of the old monument. Faded prayerflags flatter on the long poles. Maybe because of rockfall a new chorten was built on the other side of the river. Falling rocks also threaten the old monastery, named Tashi Chuding, nearby. The main hall is built on a large boulder, the fading red color indicating that it is not in regular use anymore. But the newly put up prayerflags and the lock on the door indicate that it still has significance although not the same as in earlier times. A hundred years ago it used to be a Nyingmapa monastery with over 80 monks and some nuns, the monks lived near the monastery, the nuns in the village. Back then also the village was much larger.
Only one old monk is in the village to take care of things, like the monks in Phale he is from the Gelugpa tradition. It is one of the four main Buddhist schools and was founded by a famous reformist monk (Tsongkapa) who introduced stricter rules than the other sects: alcohol and marriage are not allowed. Seeing Ghunsa's Lama drink chang in the morning is clearly against the rules, but then again it must very difficult to live a monk's life when you live in a community of laymen, and I don't know how respected he is among the villagers. His 'colleagues' in Phale certainly don't have too high of an opinion of him, I will find out on the hike out.
A women with her two children work on the field below the monastery, a picturesque scene with the gompa and precipitous mountains rising high in the background.
Back in the village I try to make myself useful and help planting potatoes. Jokingly I am offered to walk in front of the two yaks with the plow, I accept hoping that the guy does not mean it seriously. Luckily he was just kidding; guiding the moody animals without being stabbed by the horns requires some experiences. After a minute of throwing potatoes into small holes I am relegated to minor tasks. I carry shit around, literally. The baskets are heavier than they appear, after a few loads I give up.
Eric wanted to send postcards and somebody pointed to a building saying it is the post office. He gave the family sitting on the veranda the cards and a hundred rupees for stamps. The looks on their faces must have been puzzled; they are probably wondering why they get postcards and money as a gift from a stranger.
They invite me for the traditional Ghunsa afternoon snack: boiled potatoes with salt and chilies. It is a welcome snack, and entertaining for the locals who watch me clumsily peeling potatoes. A big pile of uncooked potatoes is sorted out into the ones worth keeping for meals and the smaller one that are good for planting. These are cut into pieces and will be planted the next morning. While working, the (grand?)mother is watching a small baby and tries to fix me up with her 20-year old (grand?)child. My declines are met with many smiles and much laughter.
Just across our campsite is the house of the lodge owner's own house. A ladder goes to a large veranda from where a small door takes you to the dark living room. It is also the kitchen and bedroom, nevertheless it is a 'public' room and visitors are welcome. I sit near the fire, watch the flames and listen to the conversations. Sometimes I manage to catch a few words.
The housewife is in control and sits at the left of the fire, the oldest daughter across her on the right. I'm sure quite some Ph.D.-papers were written on the subject of 'Sitting positions in Sherpa culture', but I have never been able to find one. Anyway, one does not need to be a careful observer to find out that it is a delicate matter and that the best seats are reserved for family and relatives. Seeing tourists taking the best ('warmest') seat and stretch their feet to the fire makes me cringe inside. When unsure or not specially invited sitting further away is a good idea. Humbleness is seen as a virtue. Cups are a similarly coded custom, ama-la (literally 'mother') has a beautiful cup with a fine silver lid.
It is hard to tell who is the head of the house. The husband does not seem to drink and usually gets food last. His wife drinks a little bit of Tongba from a beautiful jug with silver ornaments.
I give myself a treat and take a hot shower at the campsite. A pipe goes from the owner's living room over the road to the small bathhouse. I indulge with a clean conscience since the big water-barrel is placed on top of the fire and no extra wood was wasted to boil the water.
The Spanish group that arrived camps out near 'my' hotel. It's a family trip, the 60-year-old has visited Nepal almost 20 times and now for the first time goes trekking with his two sons. They have a good time, though he has problems with his knees and stays here for three days while his sons go up to Kangbachen. Afterwards they will meet in Ghunsa and together cross the pass to the east.
Ghunsa - Kangbachen (Day 9)
Yesterday the loads were divided up and after handing out additional clothes to porters we are ready after breakfast. It getting distinctively colder at altitudes above 3'500 meters, especially at night. It was really cold at night again, I noticed it when I got out once for the regular pee- stop but then decided to avoid the cold and the watchdog by using a flowerpot.
Porters are tough and strong, but they suffer in cold like everybody else and their eyes hurt the same as ours when they get snow-blind. Therefore every tourist should make sure that his or her porters are well equipped. Some agencies do not outfit 'their' porters at all, because they are hired on the fly and agencies do not want to pay for their gear. The International Porters Protection Group (IPPG) has a clothing-bank in Kathmandu where clothes can be rented. Joel brought lots of clothes from IPPG, the male porters really like their new outfits. The Trisuli female porters look more skeptical and do not want to wear anything else than their traditional clothes. Hopefully they will change their mind when they really need warm clothes.
People are up early and continue their work on the fields. Nobody is ploughing yet, probably because the frozen ground makes it more strenuous than at noon. Kids and older women carry fertilizer from the stables under the house to the fields. I am early and help them carry a few baskets. It is hard work and I am not using to carry 25 kg on my back with a string over my head. Even the 10-year-old children have a basket of a substantial size. If I did this work for half a day I'd probably be unable to move for a week.
Most Tibetan people (except Khampas) are smaller than Europeans, and this cannot be explained genetically (children of Tibetan families born in Switzerland are as tall as everybody else). So it might come from the fact that they carry heavy loads while growing up, or due to a less nutritious diet.
We leave the village in company of our porters who are in a great mood; maybe the beautiful morning uplifted their spirits as much as it did mine. The weather is brilliant, and rather cold; blue sky, crisp air, hoarse-frost on the ground. The ice melts away fast when the sun hits the ground as we reach the forest. The valley is walled in between rock faces on the left and steep high snow-covered mountains on the right. The wide Ghunsa Khola runs in the middle, a lovely forest with larches and pines grows between the river and the glaciers. The rivulets coming from the mountain range are tiny compared to the gorge in which they now run. Landslides are another indication that at some time of the year - probably monsoon - the valley changes from 'peaceful' to 'very active'.
We take a break on a cleared plateau and enjoy the views to the north: a peak resembling a needle dominates the range near Kangbachen. The glaciers on the right tower high up, icicles cling to the steep rock faces on the left. A great morning!
A traditional wooden bridge crosses the torrent near our lunch-spot at Rampuk Kharka. We go slowly and stop often, some because of altitude, some because of the great scenery. The trees and bushes are getting less dense, the valley opens up and I wonder what views we'll get in the afternoon.
The traverse over a potentially unstable landslide area requires full attention for a few minutes, but then there is time to sit down and let yourself be overwhelmed by the views:
A wide glacier flows in a bed with gentle curves, a massive wall of ice and snow towers over everthing, vertical rock faces reach high into the sky. The two summits in the foreground are very impressive, nevertheless they are still topped by Jannu. Not only is it 7'710 meters high, in addition it is almost completely vertical. When you follow the ridge and think you see its summit, you have to look further up to the little head that sits on top of the broad shoulder. The 'smallest' of the precipitous mountains next to it looks like Eiger North face, Jannu's face is at least twice that high. I sit down in awe of the stupendous peaks, taking in the scenery in small bits. Words fail to describe the view and the feelings it evokes.
Half an hour ago we were sweating on the ascent, now a cold wind requires windproof clothes. Glaciers have formed the landscape around us, the area is more level and small trails zig-zag through the boulders. Adjacent to big rocks are a few little shacks of yak herders who will move up here from Ghunsa during summer, right now they are abandoned. The village of Kangbachen comes unexpected, as we stand on a little hill we see a dozen buildings at the confluence of three valleys.
After crossing a small creek we are in the village and wait near a little bridge. Most snow has melted but there is enough left for a snowballfight with the Sherpas and kitchen crew who arrive shortly after us.
Ram Kaji could convinced a farmer from Ghunsa to come up with us to open his lodge. It is a simple building with one room for our kitchen, a dining-hall and three sleeping quarters. In last Manaslu's group there might have been some discussions (and hard feelings) about who gets which room, this group is more relaxed in this respect. After years of trekking and sharing tents, the single tent that is standard when trekking with Jamie and Joel is a luxury. But I'm also happy with a room and since nobody wants it, it's mine for the next two days. That's worth re-decorating: after ten minutes things are arranged neatly and the room looks cozy; I have a nice bookshelf, clothing line, found some old nails on a roof which make perfect coat hooks, and got two candles from Mege.
Joel has spent some time in kitchen tonight: the outcome is a delicious chilli tomato sauce.
Kangbachen Rest day (Day 10)
I have to get up in the middle of the night. The sky is clear, not a single cloud hides the Milky Way and the endless stars, the bright light of full moon illuminates the stunning mountains. I feel a little sorry for people who's bladder is so strong that they sleep through and never get to enjoy the views at night.
Bells wake me one hour before breakfast, for awhile I enjoy lying on the big comfortable planks (yes, it is a bed). When I get up the older yaks are already on the way to the pastures, only young yaks stay in the village. I expected to see more of them because agriculture seems impossible up here and husbandry could be a profitable business.
The village gives a partly abandoned impression, it is not inhabited in winter but I wonder if it is much busier in summer. The Indian pundit Chandra Das described barley fields when he came through on his way to Tibet as a 'spy' for the British. But that was 1879, these days only moraines and stones surround the village.
Clouds cover the sky, only some peaks are brightly lit. A good excuse not to go for a long dayhike. After lingering around for some hours after breakfast, we decide to go for a short hike. Just behind the village is a ridge that blocks the view towards north. Small trails go up through the shrubs to a chorten and some prayerflags which the end of the short climb, during which we felt the altitude. My heart is beating faster and the breathing increases, usual symptoms of altitude. Except for Dave who has a severe cold everybody is fine. From here the views to the north are impressive: the valley becomes wider, the remains of a wide glacier comes towards us, behind it rise snow-covered peaks of various heights, Tengkoma is one of the smaller peaks, Drohmo by far the largest one at the Eastern end of the valley.
We follow the yak trails that traverse the hill, a steep rock mountain rises to the right, below us to the left is the old moraine with a small creek named Nupchu ("West-River" in Tibetan). The others walk slower and since they plan to take for a longer tour, I go on independently. A ridge is blocking the way and I descend to the valley where large sand banks and some pools look like an inviting place for swimming... if it wasn't snowing and the pools weren't partially frozen. On warm days in autumn it must be a great place to hang out: spread your towel, and take a nap with views of 7'000 m peaks. The only one swimming there right now is a lonely brown duck. According to the map there are large glacial lakes at the end of this valley, but the walk there would be long and it is unlikely that the weather will get better. I turn around but miss the trail that I saw from higher up, so I just follow the Nupchu Khola towards our camp. Jumping from boulder to boulder across the water is a good exercise for concentration and leg muscles.
My timing was perfect, the short walk offered good views towards Lhonak, increased my appetite and I'm back in camp just before lunch. While enjoying dal baht once more, the cloud cover breaks and the remaining clouds make the stupendous walls of Jannu even more impressive. The turbulence in the air - only visible because of the fog - around the summits makes their height and wildness more tangible. I must have looked intensely at these mountains dozens of times every day, and still found something new every time. Incredible.
The views are too tempting to remain in camp, in the middle of the afternoon a small group sets out for the Jannu glacier. Crossing the creek on two planks (each three-inch wide) is a little tricky. It is half a mile from camp to the foot of the black slope; we soon give up a shortcut because of thorny bushes. Some snow lies on the glacier, from the crest of the black ridge we look down into a large area of ice and debris 30 meters below us.
The differences of temperatures are very large in the Himalayas, this cracks the rocks on the mountain flanks and thus much rubble covers the glacier. Going down to the glacier from here would be too dangerous because of the constant rockfall, so we decide to walk a little bit further up on the ridge for better views of Jannu. After crossing some patches of wet snow, the others decide to turn around and I go a little further. Snow, mud, stones, and many creeks require some attention, but it takes some effort to take the eyes from Jannu and concentrate on the trail.
Eventually I turn around earlier than planned, the wind is freezing cold and clouds have moved in. Instead of taking the way on the ridge I follow the foot of the moraine, then through the shrubbery and eventually cross the two wooden planks. A little tired and am happy to be back in camp.
Before dinner the sky clears up.
Kangbachen - Rest day (Day 11)
I sleep perfectly in my cozy room; it was warm and almost too luxurious for a trekking. The large (though hard) bed, the privacy, the bookshelf and candles and all the space made me feel like staying in a hotel. Those who didn't have the luxury of a room and stayed in tents warm up quickly when the sun reaches the valley.
Breakfast is delicious: Scrambled eggs never taste as good as when sitting at the foot of Himalayan summits!
It is a perfect day for an excursion to Jannu. The 5'146 meter hill above Kangbachen looks a promising destination, too. I cannot decide where to go, and set out quickly for the 'hill' while the others are packing and leaving towards the glacier. I reach the foot of the unnamed hill much quicker than yesterday and start climbing on small trails. The yak trails turn into goat trails but end soon where the tricky parts begin. As always, the mountain is much steeper than it looked from camp and some cliffs require detours. After the fourth spot where a fall would be possible and terribly harmful (to put it mildly), I realize that it would be too risky and too long to reach the top. I take a last break and sit down on a stone in the stone: I climbed quite high up, the tents in Kangbachen look as ridiculously small as they really are. Two hours after leaving I am back at camp and relax for awhile.
The rest of the group is quite a bit ahead and I can't see anyone when I walk towards the Jannu valley. I take the same way like yesterday but stay on the ridge of the moraine. Finally I catch up and wait on a plateau from where we enjoy the stunning views. Words cannot do justice to Jannu, the sheer rock is so steep that not even a single snowfield clings to its flank, despite its height. A glacier is at the foot of the wall, high above it lies a thin line of snow on the ridge - the vertical 2500 meters in between is one barren rock face. A thin line of snow separates the red rock from the blue sky. Snow-drifts from Jannu's summit are clearly visible in the dark blue sky.
Joel and Dave went some other way when we spot them way up in an empty creek going up towards Mera. I had plenty of snacks on the way, but am happy to finally get my pack when the 'explorers' arrive. The sun shines fiercely, yet at the same time occasional cold gusts make me shiver. After lunch I go on for some more minutes trying to reach a pilgrim site. Surprisingly, there are some places for Hindu pilgrims up here: one of them near Kangbachen and another one here near the glacier. A big black boulder is decorated with a trident (sign of Shiva) and people leave coins and other small oblations.
As the wind picks up it gets chilly and the gray takes over the blue sky it is time to get back to camp quickly. Running is easier on my knees than walking, the patches of snow and the mud in the rivulet are the only obstacles and soon I'm on the plain below the moraine. I did get a slight headache during lunch, and I am really tired: despite the great excursion it feels good to be back 'home'. Sitting in a chair with a bowl of popcorn and a hot chocolate feels wonderful!
Light snowfall sets in, but everybody makes it back way before dusk. Most of the laundry is dry, after doing 'housework' I take a well-deserved nap in my room.
Dinner is fabulous, just the soup and popcorn alone are remarkable; pasta with tomato sauce and graded cheese is absolutely fantastic. Usually I don't like western food while trekking, but the pasta tastes amazing and we'll eventually run out of it.
While sitting in bed, candle on the bookshelf, book in my hands, I realize that the next night will be in a small tent again. I'm definitely spoiled, considering that a single tent is a luxury.
Kangbachen - Lhonak (Day 12)
It is slightly overcast when we get up, but by the time we finish breakfast and are ready to leave the sun is shining. We follow the river whose bed must have been a moraine once. Joel warned everybody to walk deliberately slowly to prevent altitude sickness; nevertheless we soon catch up with the porters who stopped for lunch already. The women porters from Trisuli who were very shy at first are bolder now; Dendi is usually the translator and gets along with them very well. The oldest one is 31 and a mother of 4 children.
The mountains are so steep that we can only see hanging glaciers to our right, but then two peaks appear and finally we see the fine ridge connecting the two summits. Like the previous days, the western wall of the valley is free of snow, except for a frozen waterfall with funny shaped snow cones. The path goes gently upwards for a long time. A few rockslide areas need to be crossed, the Sherpas show great faith in their ears because they don't even look up and don't quicken their pace, I rather trust my eyes and quick feet.
After some climbs we reach Ramtang where the valley gets very wide. According to the map a chorten and a few shacks should be here, but there is 'just' a breathtaking scenery -devoid of any sign of human existance. A few miles ahead the glacier makes a right bend; somewhere in that curve is our camp in Lhonak. One of the snow-covered peaks on the range ahead must be Tengkoma. A rock pillar dubbed 'Mount Penis' is a small but prominent landmark in the wide high alpine scenery. Even the small juniper bushes have disappeared.
At first it is a very gentle and easy walk, but before Lhonak the trails gets more and more narrow and eventually disappears in landslides. The terrain is rugged, just as if the glacier has forced itself down the valley with brute force, and not with gentle elegance. I'm not even sure it is a moraine; it could be a glacier that is covered by so much rubble that it looks 'dead'. What a contrast to the immense peaks and hanging glaciers that glint in the sun high above us. In Tibetan language, 'Lho' means south, 'nak' is black, and compared to the snow and the wide light-flooded plains of the Tibetan high plateau it is a good description.
I follow the porters who found a bridge and now crest a little hill from where we overlook a sand-covered plain bordered by the ridge of the glacier. The plain is open to the north from where a little stream meanders through the sand towards us. It looks like the bottom of a glacial lake that eventually broke through the dyke formed by Kangchenjunga glacier and flooded the Kangbachen valley a long time ago. The snow goes up to our ankles but the porters don't seem to mind since we're almost in camp. In the eastern corner of the plain stand three simple houses, the porters head straight that way and stop at the first house where they are greeted by the kitchen crew. Other portes arrive in little groups and are greeted and cheered by those who have already arrived. Everybody is in a very relaxed mood.
This is a fantastic campsite. The huge glacier coming from Kangchenjunga's northface makes a turn just below the site, over it towers the filigree icefalls of Wedge Peak (White Wave?). Hills and mountains surround us, apart from avalanches and rockslides that can be heard in the evening, it is strangely quiet.
The kitchen settles down in a hut, the porters stay in the bigger room where an open fire is lit and everybody crowds around it. We enjoy dinner in the big mess tent, some people feel the altitude but nobody is sick. Dave is doing better and starts planning the trip up to the border.
Freezing temperatures are a reliable indication that we have reached the highest point so far: Lhonak is almost 5'000 meters high and does not get sun in the evening, plus there is the wind-chill factor. Even with good clothes there are moments where it gets uncomfortable, but that is part of trekking. And standing in a snowstorm brushing your teeth is rewarded two minutes later when you're inside the warm sleeping bag with a hot water bottle.
The snowflakes hit the tent, wind gusts make the poles shake, but soon I am dozing off.
Lhonak - Pangpema (Day 13)
What a freezing cold night it this is. I must have had a light sleep, the sound of zippers (altitude seems to add pressure to the bladder) can be heard the whole night. I'm not immune, call of nature wakes me three times. I curse myself for not bringing a pee bottle.
The minutes before sunrise are usually the coldest moment, and the sun takes forever to move around the corner. I will move my tent 50 feet. Another group camped even closer to the rocks; their Sirdar saves them 50 rupees per tent and day (75 cents). Luckily with Jamie and Joel such stupid austerity measures are out of the question, and even the (usually served) jam is replaced by a much better one. Both have trekked enough to know that small things make a difference.
It was good that I forgot to set my alarm, the valley and especially Wedge Peak do not get the spectacular morning sun I was hoping for. Well, admittedly I should have also looked at the other peaks but was too lazy to get out of the tent. Luckily I did that the next morning.
Bagman brings tea at 700, lying in the sleeping bag while being warmed by the sun feels like lying on the beach. One hour later breakfast is served outside, it is too hot in the sun to stay in the mess tent.
Half of our group will spend almost two extra weeks exploring unusual routes, us 'shorties' will stay here for several days. The weather is so good that most of us decide to walk to Pangpema, a great viewpoint slightly higher up from where Kangchenjunga and many impressive 7'000 meter peaks can be seen.
I'm in good shape and will probably catch up with the others, so I decide to do 'housecleaning' first. I clean the tent, do the laundry and last, but definitely not least, wash myself from head to toe. An hour later I also set out and follow the trail that goes up a slope for the first few minutes, but then evens out and then runs parallel to the glacier. To the left is the range culminating in Drohmo peak. The steep gravel slope will be our first obstacle to climb Tengkoma tomorrow, Blue Sheep is fleeing higher up when the first of our group walk past them. In a distant are the peaks that form the border to Sikkim, massive mountains that seem like islands swimming in a glacial ocean.
Bad weather is coming up the valley from Ghunsa, but at Pangpema the weather is still fine and I continue, though I've passed the Sherpa who carried pack-lunch some time ago.
Small rivulets turn the brown turf into a swamp, no wonder no large yak herds are here yet. In the summer the pastures are probably much greener. Though the glacier looks not as stunning from far away, on a closer look one sees all the holes, pools and caves. Dave and Eric find an ice-cave near our camp. I soon catch up with some of our group and the American group, they are very curious and quite persistent, wanting to know what Joel was doing 'up there climbing the hill'. The official status of the mountain is not entirely clear and nobody bothered to get an official answer from the ministry. I hope they believe my answer 'he's exploring and looking for good photo-spots'. Joel is a bit worried that they might do the same thing that we are doing, but even if that was their original plan most of them couldn't do it due to lack of strength.
Three huge peaks build the source of the glacier, the mighty face of Kangchenjunga 'feeds' the ice the most. The sky is overcast now and it is tempting to head back to camp, especially since nobody else is around, but I wait for a few minutes and go on with John and Rein. The views from Pangpema are probably not much better, so we stop at a suitable spot, eat some snack and marvel at the sight of the 3rd highest mountain on earth. Above a 'multistorey' glacier towers a precipitous rock face, at the very top two equally high summits tower over us: a triangular peak and a round one. The left one is a few meters higher and the official summit, 8'586 meters high.
Kangchenjunga could be translated as "Five Treasuries of the Great Snow". For some years in the early 19th century it was believed to be the highest mountain. The first attempt to summit was made 1905 - all four members died in an avalanche. The first successful mountaineers in 1955 didn't actually summit - they stopped a few steps short of the highest point. A noble gesture. The natives of Sikkim believe the mountain is home of a goddess. I think these days no permits to climb are issued by the Sikkim authorities.
After taking pictures we turn back to camp. The trail is easy to find at first, but then it branches into several smaller ones and I follow the broadest one. Suddenly I find myself at the foot of the glacier, I could probably stay on the path and hike up the moraine further down, but I heed Joel's warnings and scramble up trying to find the exact same trail on which I went to Pangpema. Last autumn one of the trekkers missed the trail to Lhonak and got lost. Late at night he was found on the way to Kangbachen, freezing, tired and exhausted but otherwise fine.
I arrive on the plateau above the glacier breathlessly and bump into a porter / guide who is heading to Pangpema but has no clue where he is. Soon afterwards I meet a porter who has health problems but I cannot figure out what he is suffering from. It is in the afternoon already and catching up with his group will take at least two hours. Attempts to get him to turn around are useless, so I write him a note that he should give to Dendi or any other of our Sherpas so they can talk to him. I give him the rest of my biscuits and go on, hoping that he'll be fine. Some tourists assume that porters are immune to cold and altitude sickness, and when Sirdards neglect their responsibility there is often nobody to complain.
After not seeing anyone for quite some time I am relieved to catch up with Joel some minutes before Lhonak. He went to inspect high camp with Gombu and is reasonably happy: the campsite still exists and is covered by only little snow.
The smell of popcorn and a hot chocolate is very welcome once again. I'm tired after the long walk and we arrive just as the fog gets denser; I hope everybody got to see Kangchenjunga before the clouds moved in. It was a five-hour walk at 5'000 meters. Light snow starts to fall and increases constantly. Two hours later after dinner I walk through a minor snowstorm looking for my tent that I shifted further away to get the sun earlier tomorrow.
Perfect trekking atmosphere: after a hot, filling and tasty dinner I crawl into my sleeping bag, light a candle, have some chocolate and start reading a book. I get sleepy quickly and fall asleep listening to the low sound of snowflakes on the tent. In weather like this a warm tent is cozier and comfortable than the best 5-star hotel could ever be!
Lhonak - Rest Day (Day 14)
It is still snowing when I wake up a few hours later when somebody shakes snow off the tents. Wind picks up during the night and often wake up, my impression that I sleep less sound than yesterday is probably wrong, it is just much noisier than the night before. After waking up a minute I fall sleep again. Luckily no nightly walks to the toilet tent are necessary tonight.
At 600 I open my tent to enjoy the fantastic sunrise on the far mountains. Five inches of snow haven fallen; the pristine plain is sparkling. The steep summits at Kangbachen glow orange while the moon is still in the sky. The mountains in the Chabuka valley towards Tibet also caught the sunrays early.
Twenty minutes later the sun hits my tent and I start taking off clothes. At 645 I put on sunscreen to avoid potentially painful sunburns. Warm washing water is ready and I wash in the snow outside my tent without getting cold. Some people go for an excursion after breakfast, I enjoy the lazy atmosphere at camp. We play Frisbee and joking around with the porters and crew.
It is very bright, Joel brought sunglasses for all the porters and even the women from Trisuli put them on. I remember the sunglass-episode on my Dolpo trek, which still makes me laugh. And I try to forget the tragic episode on Shingo La in Zanskar.
The plan for the next days is to split the group into two. The people who booked the long trek try to go up the Lhonak glacier finding campsites and possible trails. This should be done first before the whole group can go there. Dave's plan for a small, fast-moving lightweight expedition falls through and in the end they have to take everything and everybody. I feel very bad for him, taking a large group with its own kitchen crew is a hindrance for exploring. And from the last few days I assume that the people in the long group are not as tough and curious as explorer should be, I think. They lack hardcore equipment and the physical strength.
One of the first English narratives mentions hot springs and a cave near Lhonak. Padmasambhava, a legendary figure who brought Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have bathed in the springs and hidden treasures (probably scriptures) in the cave. No detailed geographical information is given in Dras' report, and there is nobody around I could ask. Maybe future trekkers will 're-discover' the place.
Some go up to Tengkoma high camp tomorrow and attempt to summit the day after tomorrow. Joel sorts out the gear for the climb, we're short of plastic boots and ice axes. Since we won't be able to climb with too much snow anyway, I am not too concerned.
Lunch is very sparse, which is about the only thing that makes me grumpy during trekking. Luckily this is only a one-time mishap and won't happen again on this trek.
The locals belief that the rock formation above the camp represents a tiger (religious importance), nearby are some prayerflags on a cliff. Out of boredom, I climb up there on big boulders and add a stone to the small pile. The wide plain is interesting because small plants grow on the sand that is now partly covered by snow, leading to strange patterns and forms.
The fog and light snowfall are deterrence for further walks. In one of the huts I meet two Americans working for Peace Corps. They live near Taplejung and took some days off to explore 'their' district. The bad weather caught them by surprise and they try to get warm in the hut, enjoying a sparse meal of potatoes and siben (Tibetan chili sauce). I share some Swiss chocolate with them, later Joel invites them for dinner. Our luxury must seem decadent to them.
Though it was cloudy again in the afternoon, snowfall starts only after dinner. It is as strong as yesterday night's. Wind is picking up. I wonder what this means for our climb.
Lhonak - Tengkoma High Camp (Day 15)
We climb the mountain in two groups: when the first group was formed some people were unhappy to be in the second group. Though they probably have better chances later because of less snow and better acclimatization, they join us.
Climbing Tengkoma in one day is not feasible, so the plan is to set up high camp at 5'200 meters and attempt the summit the next morning. Preparing all the gear and food takes some time and we enjoy an early lunch in Lhonak. This will probably be the last 'real' meal till tomorrow's dinner. Freeze-dried food is more suitable, above a certain altitude it does not make sense to carry real food, kerosene and kitchen utensils.
We walk towards Pangpema for an hour, take a left turn and start climbing a loose scree slope. The porters have taken a different trail and we see them traversing high above us. Our 'ascent' is not difficult but tiring - a first taste of tomorrow's walk. Despite going slowly, Gombu is breathing heavily, maybe age is taking a toll on him, though this is hard to believe because he climbed Everest a few years ago and is still working for expeditions, or maybe he is feeling sick. His motivation does not seem very big, and he is not getting along with the other Sherpas terribly well.
Nicole is walking in the back with Gombu, I switch my light backpack with her heavy one. I feel comfortable and go ahead, following the small stone pillars which mark the way. I almost walk too far up, but then I see Joel on a grassy shoulder. A few meters below is level space barely big enough for our four tents.
The porters arrive, drop their loads, take a short rest and return to Lhonak. Their strength and work-ethic is incredible. Dendi has built a small kitchen and is boiling water. After putting up the tents fog moves in and hides the views of the glacier and Wedge Peak. While Jannu is stupendous and Kangchenjunga massive; Wedge Peak looks like a fine piece of art with its symmetrical summit and its steep walls entirely covered by finely carved hanging glaciers.
I feel tired now, and there is not much to do. The sherpas love the walkie-talkies and talk to Ram Kaji in Lhonak for a long time. Everybody else sits around or tries to take a nap, most are affected by the altitude but nobody is sick. We are at 5'300 meters, 600 meters higher than Lhonak. Dinner starts earlier than usual, pasta and vegetable on a cheese sauce tastes decent and is filling. We eat outside, surprisingly it is less chilly than in Lhonak.
Suddenly the fog clears, at first only the silhouette of Wedge Peak is visible but then the snow fields shine in a pink light. I wish I had a camera that could capture these moments. Moon and stars are on the sky and it would be time for bed. But my initial tiredness is gone and I lie awake for awhile, when I finally fall asleep I often jerk up because of very irregular breathing. There is giggling from the women's the whole night, Rein whom I share the tent with doesnt seem to sleep either.
Eventually, it must be an hour before midnight, my breathing gets normal and I fall into a deep, dreamless, relaxing sleep. Except for two toilet stops, I sleep safe and sound until 400 when Joel wakes up the kitchen crew.
Tengkoma Climb (Day 16)
Nobody slept well except for the Sherpas, and the few who finally fell asleep woke up when Joel got up. The hot Tang orange drink is something that both Joel and Jamie swear is excellent, but it tastes disgusting on an empty stomach. Somehow I manage to gulp down a bowl of muesli. Compared to last year's climb of Chulu Far East, things seem hectic.
Nicole is not feeling well, yesterday's climb was tough for her and she has not acclimatized at night. She could probably climb with Diamox, but decides that 'if you're body does not want to go, why push it with drugs?' and will go down later.
It is hard to decide what to wear: right now it is bitter cold but this will change quickly once we start moving and the sun comes out. Long underwear, trekking pants, wind-proof pants, a fleece and a wind-proof jacket are very warm but I can always take things off later. As usually it is freezing cold just before sunrise, I stay in the tent as long as possible and since I assembled my gear (which is not much) yesterday night I am ready in a few minutes. With crampons and ropes the procedure would take much longer. In these conditions, Tengkoma should not require any mountaineering equipment, so I just pack my little daypack, tie my shoes and off we go.
We climb one of the gullies above the camp, the gravel is covered by a hard-frozen layer of snow which makes walking easier. No fresh snow fell in the last 24 hours. It looks like a tough but not very beautiful climb, at least as long as we are in the gullies.
By now the night is over and it is bright enough to turn off the flashlight. It's gonna be a beautiful morning, if not a perfect day. The trekking poles are very useful, but the fingers get cold easily. My feet are also freezing, maybe plastic boots would be a good idea the next time. Everybody goes slowly, after the first couloir we cross into another one and continue through more snow and scramble over loose rock. Despite the steepness, ropes are not necessary and walking on rock is less intimidating then on ice. All that was required so far are strong leg muscles and good lungs.
After the second couloir we traverse on some snow and reach a good place for rest. The sun has risen above the range in the east and illuminates the peaks of Kangchenjunga and Yalung Kang, the ridge of Wedge Peak lies still in the shade. We have gained some altitude and also get to enjoy the warm sunrays. Hand and feet are warmed up, clothes taken off and after a fifteen-minute break we are ready to continue.
A long screeslope lies ahead of us, the white snow-capped summit starts somewhere behind the ridge. I expected Gombu, our Everest-experienced Sherpa, to go ahead but he stays behind - heavy equipment, he laments - and I join Dendi who is leading. The others were reasonably fast so far, now they all slow down. The terrain is less step but more difficult on loose rocks. I try to get a foothold on the bigger, more stable rocks; this technique might take more energy at the first glance, but is probably less tiring than stumbling over the pebbles. I stop less often and I continue towards a ridge.
The views are fantastic and worth turning around often. To the left are Tent Peak and Twin Peak, below them several glaciers meet. If a glacier could be compared to a river, then this would be a lake. Kangchenjunga towers in the middle, not necessarily in height (though it really is the highest point around) but more in its scale and breadth. Its glacier makes a bend at the far right and flows down towards Kangbachen. Lhonak lies somewhere near that curve but I cannot spot the camp with binoculars, though Dave managed to see us from down there.
I'm at the foot of a ridge leading up to the impressive snow dome, which is climbed from the back. Some clouds are forming behind the summit, no reason to worry. So far conditions were surprisingly good; only little snow was on the mountain, the wind was not blowing and no fog appeared. Snow starts to get deeper from here, but most of the bigger rocks look out of it and make it a comfortable place to sit down and enjoy the magnificent scenery. Unlike Chulu Far East which was my first ever climb last year (and I promised myself that it'd be the last one ) and from where the views towards the Annapurna range are fantastic but somewhat distanced, here it is a different feeling because of all the glaciers and mountains that unfold so much closer to you.
I wait some time for the others who are getting slower and slower. The only sound is Joel's coughing which sounds not good at all. He makes it to the ridge before the others and after looking around for some moments declares that we'll have to bail. I'm a bit surprised about his quick decision. Admittedly there is probably more snow than expected and the sky is not crystal-clear anymore, but even I (and admittedly I am not a very brave person) felt comfortable so far. The others turn around (happily?).
Joel gives me permission to go on if I want to. Since there is too much snow on the ridge Dendi and I traverse a snowfield of reasonable steepness, far below is the glacier from Drohmo peak. Five minutes later we stand on the ridge again. It looks positively do-able, but definitely strenuous. Gombu has put up prayerflags further down, the definite sign that all the others are turning around. I am undecided. I would continue if Dendi agreed, but he wants to go down.
I don't really have a choice and start with a quick descent. Taking big steps and small jumps down on the gravel slope is the fastest and easiest way, once or twice I slip. Fifteen minutes later Dendi and I are on the saddle above the couloirs. Down to high camp in the steep gullies requires attention and in the beginning we are more careful on the snow slopes, but then start 'skiing' down on our shoes. We're at camp in no time.
Hot noodle soup is waiting there for us. I help packing everything up and after a relaxing nap start with the walk to Lhonak. Soon I am near the Kangchenjunga glacier and hop from stone to stone across the little rivulets in the warm sunshine. The sound from the brooks and birds' chirping are idyllic after the harsh desolation at 6'000 meters. It is a relief to walk on flat turf instead of ankle-twisting rocks. The quick descent is rewarded by getting to Lhonak camp just as dal baht is served.
I am disappointed and grumpy - not because we failed, but why we failed. I am not an eager climber, and I did not spend too much energy or emotions. Though Tengkoma is higher than Chulu Far East, it is less of a challenge and last year's climb felt like a bigger achievement. Nevertheless, it just sucks because it would have been so easy to climb Tengkoma. In retrospect, maybe I should have continued with Dendi. We were both strong and in any case could have turned around if conditions had deteriorated.
The amenities at camp help me over my initial bitter feelings. After another round of playing Frisbee with the porters I sit in the hut and have a great time with the crew. My spirits vastly improve.
In the afternoon the others arrive, after dinner we go to bed a little earlier than usual.
Lhonak - Ghunsa (Day 17)
The long group will stay for quite some days, Dave's exploring of Chabuka valley towards the pass was successful and he is eager to set foot on the Tibetan border (and probably a few steps further). The Indian pundit who crossed the pass in 1879 called it ' the very picture of desolation, horror, and death, escaping the treacherous crevasses which abound in this dreadful region'. Doesn't this sound like a worthwile destination?
The short group will leave for Ghunsa tomorrow, they want to rest and relax one more day up here. I usually accept group decisions and try to move individually within this 'boundaries'. This works fine for me, the comfort of a group usually leaves plenty of time and room for your own ideas and excursions, but despite its great views Lhonak is not a place where I can spend an entire week. The lack of civilization and the prospect of more snow in the coming days (clouds in the afternoon) gets me thinking about leaving for Ghunsa earlier. Joel did not seem to have a problem with my decision when I talked with him about it the previous evening.
I wait with my final decision till after breakfast to see what plans the others have. They will stay one more day and then also go back to Suketar via Ghunsa. I decide to walk to Ghunsa today and wait for them there. We take a group picture of us and the porters, kitchen crew, Sherpas and our Sirdar Ram Kaji. They did truly a great job, all of them. Ram Kaji organized everything very smoothly. I am sure there were complicated situations, but thanks to his relaxed and gentle manners we never found out about it. I stuff all essentials in my small daypack (warm clothes, toiletries, a book, some snacks) and carry the sleeping bag. I get my trekking permit, give Joel the well-deserved tips for the crew, leave some old clothes with the porters and am ready to set out around 1000.
I will meet the short group tomorrow night in Ghunsa, and members of the long group in Kathmandu. I am pretty sure to meet most of the crew (Dendi, Bagman, Ram Kajii) on future treks, so the good-bye ceremony is short. Dark clouds are on the sky far away in the south by the time I am ready. Depending on the wind rain-clouds move very fast, prompting me to hurry up and take the trail to Kangbachen without too many stops. The landslide areas between Kangbachen and Lhonak are short and easy to oversee, otherwise I wouldn't have gone (or be allowed to go) on my own.
Soon I pass the place where we had lunch on the way up; I turn around for the last view of the wide glacial valley with Tengkoma. Two hours later I reach the prayerflags above Kangbachen. The houses on the hillside and our lodge are deserted, after crossing the bridge a group is having lunch at another lodge. It is time for some rest and after a solitary walk I am happy to share food and thoughts with other trekkers. The four Frenchmen are really nice, though a bit bewildered at first as they think I am on my own and that this is all my equipment. They have been to Nepal quite a few times, had bad luck with weather in the Solo Khumbu before. They stayed in Lhonak and are now on they way back to Ghunsa. I decline offers for lunch, share Swiss chocolate as dessert instead (they are even more shy and reluctant than Nepalis).
Jannu is barely visible through the mist, but unlike most tourists we met we did get great views and could follow our itinerary as planned. I continue on my own because the clouds have intensified and I want to get past the big landslides before it starts to rain. If it proves too dangerous I could probably stay in Kangbachen or in the worst case head back to Lhonak.
The trail over the landslide looks different than a week ago, the precipitation that fell as snow further up most have caused it. Right now it looks safe and I cross it quickly with open ears and eyes. At noon I am at Rambu Kharka where a red handwashing bucket on a tripod and a matching towel are the first sign of Western civilization. The kitchen crew of a World Expedition group are preparing lunch.
Walking through forest is a pleasure after days on barren rock and snow. The smell, the colors, the sounds create an atmosphere that is very refreshing. Small brooks flow between boulder covered by moss, the trail is covered by dead leaves. A caravan of yaks carrying duffle bag passes me, they are followed by a big group of tourists and some known faces from Ghunsa. The usual conversation starts: "Tashi deleg, where are you going? Where are you coming from? Go slowly. Take care". It feels good to make a little use of my Tibetan. Hopefully it will prove more useful when I am on my own in Ghunsa. Near the bridge I meet some teenage porters who are far behind the group and carry heavy loads.
Now that I have crossed the rockslide-area and entered the fragrant forest of firs, larches and junipers, it should be only a short trek to the village. But it proves an endless afternoon. Well, it doesn't take more than an hour, but a few raindrops set my mind to reaching Ghunsa without fully appreciating the walk. This makes every minute seem much longer. Luckily it does not start to rain heavily until much later and I come to enjoy the walk more and more. Was it really that beautiful on the way up? Probably yes, but back then I was eagerly awaiting alpine scenery. Just as the rain increases I see a prayerflag, ten minutes later I am passing the mani wall and prayerflag and I see the smoke seeping through the roofs of Ghunsa.
The village is very quiet, nobody is outside and no bright-coloured tourist tents hurt the eye. The guesthouse where we camped before is closed, but the owner's wife sees me and comes over to show me the rooms. The wooden booths are small but clean and seem to have good windows. In Tibetan I ask the price, it is so reasonable that I feel a little ashamed.
After settling in and having changed into clean and dry clothes she waves me over into the comfortable living room. Amala has a beautiful young Tibetan lady as a guest; both wear a fine dress and jewelry and enjoy an afternoon gossip, a "kaffeeklatsch". They drink a little Tongba and have some snacks. I am offered butter tea and potatoes, both of which I happily accept. The potatoes with salt were one of the best meals I have ever eaten in my life. Sitting near the fire and listening to the conversation make me realize once again how great trekking is.
While siping the hot tea and enjoying the boiled potatoes I watch the increasing rain through the little wooden window. When the Frenchmen arrive soaking wet a few hours later I don't regret having gone on my own. Hurrying down from Lhonak in 41/2 hours was worth the sore muscles I'll get tomorrow.
Before it gets dark two more tourists arrive, they are on their own and share a Nepali guide / porter. The American guy is about my age, speaks Nepali and is a pleasant. He met the young German he treks with some days before and they decided to trek together but had lots of rain so far. The German guy is not very knowledgeable about local customs. Their guide is not any less annoying, he smokes in the house, turns on the radio and plays an annoying tape. Before I find out if our host's patience is being tested one of her kids turns off the tape deck.
I play with the little kid, later Dondup arrives with a young girl whom he picked up from school. I am a little confused about family relations, later they show me their picture album which confuses me even more: who is who son or daughter or daughter-in-law?
Earlier I gave some chocolate to amala, she saved half of it carefully wrapped up and gives it to her husband before dinner. It's impossible to describe the way this couple treats each other, intimacy is not shown in public, but the respect and care is overwhelming and shows in little gestures. They remind me of Mr. and Mrs. Jones on last year's Manaslu trek.
Usually it is the 'daughter' who takes care of the house and prepares food. Tsering also cooks for the guests in the lodge. The curry potatoes are delicious, the dal baht is equally tasty. It is a superb dinner. Tsering blushes when she hears the compliments.
Around 2000 I get tired and soon go over to my room for some sleep. Rain hits the roof, but not even lightning and thunder can prevent me from falling asleep quickly.
Ghunsa - Rest Day (Day 18)
I can't believe that after more than two weeks of walking a few hours of quick hiking made me so tired. I've slept very well until rooster wakes me. It is only 700 though it looks much brighter outside: it snowed an inch over night. This greatly increases the coziness of my little chamber.
When fog and clouds disperse the sun is strong enough to melt the snow within minutes. The last pieces of Swiss chocolate are my breakfast, and then I doze off again to the rhythm of the constant dripping of melting snow. Two hours later I finally get up, enjoy a cup of tea and walk around in town.
The valley's history is more turbulent than it seems; unlike other important trading routes (e.g. Kali Gandaki or Marsyangdi in the Annapurna area) we haven't seen any old fortress or dilapidated castles. For a long time this side of the Kangchenjunga also belonged to Sikkim, then it was invaded by Nepal. A fight between the 'indigenous' people from Kangbachen and Nepali Magars provoked the Tibetan to intervene and push the Magars further south. Maybe they wanted to secure pastures, or trading routes, or were just afraid of a powerful neighbour.
After the brilliant morning clouds start coming in, another good excuse not to walk to Phale. I had a nice time there on the way up and originally wanted to visit the school. But some of the people I met on their way to Kangbachen were from Phale, so they town might be less lively. And Ghunsa is such a pleasant place that the risk of walking in the rain is not worth it.
I skipped breakfast and enjoy another fantastic dal baht with potatoes. Today is Saturday, Nepal's holiday. People cannot afford to do nothing, but they avoid hard manual labor and stay near their house. Clothes are washed, kids are forced take baths in lukewarm water and friends and neighbors are visited. They put on their best dress and ornaments.
A little bit of Tongba and delicious tsampa is served, together with spicy sauce. I am too full after lunch to enjoy the special treat. When too many uninvited guests (customers) crowd in the living room, the guests disappear and probably spend a relaxed evening at a neighbor's house.
Two trekking groups arrived, and while the tourists are fine their Nepali guides act like jerks. They all huddle around the fire, but he drink too much and tries to act cool. I catch up with my diary, trying to remember the last few days and ignore him. The local police invited themselves to a neighbor's house; they seem pretty drunk and sing till late at night. First I thought they celebrate because today is Nepal's National Holiday. But when I see the disapproving face of Dondup I realize that their arrogant behavior is more the norm than the exception.
Rain gets heavier and heavier but nobody of my group has yet shown up. When dusk sets in, John and Cynthia arrive. Lucy follows an hour later with Bagman. Nothing could move me from my place in the living room because a) it is so cozy and b) Tsering's curry potatoes cannot possibly be matched by any cook.
Ghunsa - Gyabla - Thyangyam (Day 19)
Again the rain must turned into snow at night, covering the hills with a few inches. I wake up early and finish packing quickly. Our kitchen crew also just got up, when I see that 'the family' is also up I go over to their house. A few cups of buttertea are equivalent to a full breakfast (at least calorie-wise) and instead of having breakfast at camp I stay with the family for a little longer. We take some pictures, I hope Joel will be in Ghunsa in again next season and can give them some copies. Postal service to remote areas is so unreliable that it is not even worth trying.
I pay my bill, 450 rupees (6 US$) for two nights, 5 full meals, some snacks and endless cups of tea. Walking in bright sunshine through forests when it rained the night before makes it even more pleasant, the smells and colors are more intense. Since Phale was a pleasant village on the way up, I leave before the rest of the group to have more time there.
The little side creeks are coming down in cascades and waterfalls, the scenery is much greener than two weeks ago. Rhododendrons are in full bloom, small flowers spring from bushes and out of the grass. The yellowish moss is changing its color to green. Birds are singing. Spring has finally arrived.
Just before Phale the trail follows a shallow creek turned into irrigation channel. As I pass the town's entrance, the gurgling of the fast-flowing water is subdued by people's laughing and talking. The school opens at 10 o'clock, but the teachers and a few children are already there. Some visitors from Dharamsala, India (place of Tibetan exile government) are talking with the teachers and influential local people, the pupils are also busy so I walk on. The village seems abandoned, I assume that yaks are driven to the pastures. Most families have only a few yaks and dzos, and are in the middle of loading goods. I see two or three familiar faces though I have no idea where I have met them before, either Kangbachen or Lhonak.
I walk up the monastery and sit down in the courtyard. The clouds make a picturesque background for the prayerflags, but also announce possible downpours in the later afternoon. Two young monks are somewhat rude until an older monk arrives. The conversation in English and Tibetan goes fairly well, and finally I understand that 'rokpa' does not only mean 'help', but also 'friend'. This explains a few confusing conversations I had when I walked on my own. We do some Tibetan grammer (spelling and writing) exercises together. I always try to bring pictures from home (no tourist postcards but the 'real' Switzerland, or my pictures of my family) to show to people. It makes for interesting conversations where it's possible to point out the less glamorous aspects of Western culture. Xxx takes my last picture of Zurich, the place where I live. I just notice that I haven't spent (m)any thoughts on home in the last three weeks.
From the monk I find out a few interesting things about his 'new' home: He is from Tibet, like most of the villagers who fled in the 1950s and 60s. The monk imitates a gun that he points at imaginary (or past reality?) Chinese soldier and laughs when he pulls the trigger. The village is not wealthy, but thanks to the carpets that the women weave and sell either to tourists or re-sellers, people seem to be doing fine.
The first porters pass through the village and I wait for our group at a teahouse near the main road. I've had my daily ration of butter tea and decline invitations for more from the owner, a cute Tibetan woman who says she is from Kham, eastern Tibet.
Since Mege and most of the kitchen crew are staying in Lhonak, Dendi was declared 'chef de cuisine' during our way to Taplejung. He went ahead in search for a lunchspot and preparation of food. On a clearing surrounded by blooming rhododendrons we enjoy the pleasures of spring. We think about our fellow-trekkers, imagining them digging their tents out of meters of snow in Lhonak. Poor guys (and girls). As it turns out, they had to give up plans to explore the valley and they went over the pass at Ghunsa instead - a great alternative with fantastic views of the mountains. Despite the tough weather and 'human behavior' problems they had a fun time.
The fact that the vegetation has changed so much makes walking back the same route far more enjoyable than I expected. The impressive pines have not changed and look as weather-beaten as they probably looked a hundred years ago, but the bamboo, ferns, and bushes change the whole scenery. Sooner than expected I see the prayerflags that announce the sidevalley just before Gyabla. Smoke comes from one of the houses and I enter in hope for some tea and a conversation with the locals. The owner's are not really keen to have another guest, maybe their unfriendliness can be explained by the presence of an American college group that camps further down.
After the village we descend quickly to the river and follow it for the rest of the afternoon to make the next days shorter. Waterfalls roar below, but except for white spray nothing can be seen because it is too steep to see the actual torrent. Just as I get to Thyangyam, a plateau with two houses, it starts raining. I sit in the smoky and very simple living room, looking out of the door, watching the rain, waiting.
The hillsides are too steep for farming or husbandry. The family does not seem utterly destitute, but they are poor. I wonder if the half a dozen goats and small kitchen garden are their whole belonging. The husband is away, maybe on the pastures with more animals, or working for someone else further south.
When the porters arrive we throw up tents while the kitchen is set up in the barn. Rain stops and since it is not cold anymore, we enjoy a comfortable dinner in the small mess tent. It is Rein's birthday and I am looking forward to a cake for dessert. Since we had cake at Lhonak the others are skeptical and almost convince me that there will be no cake but then it arrives. What a treat.
Thyangyam - Sekathum (Day 20)
Clear sky in the morning once again, it would be a good idea to start an hour earlier each day to avoid the rain in the afternoon. The others prefer sleeping in. So we take our time and by the time we leave xx the sun is already high up and the temperatures are hot.
Today's walk is quite long, first we take the trail high above the Ghunsa Khola to Amjilosa. From there it will go down to the bridge again where some tough up's and down's are waiting for us. The morning's walk is great. The smell of dry herbs, a hot wind and the tall yellow grass are such a difference to yesterday's walk in the dense forest. Lizards sunbathe on the rocks. The red of rhododendrons, blue of the sky and white of the mountains is a colorful puzzle. Dense fir forests and the little sidevalleys with whitewater creeks are quite a contrast to the Mediterranean feeling on this side of the river.
Since some members are terribly slow we have to stop early in Amjilosa for lunch. The water from the nearby hose proves reasonably warm and since there is plenty of time to kill I take a shower. By the time I am clean, dark clouds have built up. Lunch tastes good but there is not enough food to satisfy my hunger, a serious challenge to my good mood.
Rain is getting stronger and I hurry downhill in ever increasing rain. When I reach the lower spurs and enter the forest, the rain has lessened a little but I am still happy to have brought an umbrella.
The porters also quickened their pace and wait in a hut near the bridge. I pass them and trying to find a walking speed that doesn't make me sweat but is still fast enough to escape the rain. It is a miserable walk on slippery trails on which muddy pools have formed. The constant climbs and descents are not enjoyable and no end is in sight. The green pool where I went for a short swim on the way up is just a brown dot in the fog. At last I reach the second bridge from where the end of the valley can be guessed.
But the most strenuous part lies still ahead: endless staircases cut in the bare rock. They force me to utter more than one swear while climbing. Most of the others did the same, we'll find out during dinner. Things are put in perspective when I catch up with a Nepali family who walk in flip flops, shorts and a shirt: I am grateful when I realize that I am still reasonably dry thanks to a high-tech jacket, rain-proof pants and my umbrella. At a junction they go up towards Sekathum village, I head down to the campsite near the bridge where some minutes later I sit near the fire in dry clothes, drink a coke and watch the rain getting stronger. The last thing I notice before dozing off is that it's raining cats and dogs. The coziness of afternoon like this are hard to describe; after a little discomfort you can relax and appreciate the luxury of a cozy house from where the sight and sound of rain accompanies you into a short nap.
Some time later the most of our group and some porters arrive soaking wet. No plastic sheet covers their loads but everything in my bag seems dry. Poor Bagman arrives hours later with Lucy.
I put on more dry clothes and help putting up tents. Tourist behavior is embarrassing once more, they sit inside the house wearing their rain-gear, a book in their hand watching the porters with no rain-gear putting up their tents. While watching they complain about Dendi's 'lack of leadership skills' because he is out there too, getting wet instead of giving orders from the inside. Just a few minutes ago the same tourists slammed Starbucks for not selling 'fair-trade-coffee'. It is ridiculous.
My tent is too wet and I decide to stay in the room of the owner's son. It is a small booth, the bed is made of two wooden planks covered with carpets, though a bit short it is very comfortable.
Dendi and Bagman share their cooking duties. Dendi does a better job than Mege (though this doesn't mean Mege wasn't good, he just had to cook for much more people), Bagman is simply perfect. I wish he'd cooked for us the whole time. I am partly responsible for the soup and feel slightly honored. The worse the weather, the more important the food. Dinner is fantastic.
Today's walk was tiring so despite snoring and the gambling of the kitchen crew in the adjacent room I sleep quickly.
Sekathum - Chirwa (Day 21)
I wake up early to the crackle of the fire. The group's patience (and especially mine) is put to another test when the slowest member of group wants to leave only after her sleeping bag has dried out in the sun. Since I want to avoid the afternoon rain I don't wait and set out on my own - the trail along the river is well-marked and getting lost is no risk. By the time I am out of the sidevalley and join the wider valley of the Tamur river the cool morning temperatures are gone but it is not uncomfortably hot yet. The scenery is much greener, fern and bushes are growing along the trail but surprisingly few flowers bloom. I thought that the wet and hot climate leads to a biodiversity like in Sikkim, which is 'just' across the Kangchenjunga mountain range. Not only plants are varied here, the numbers of animals is also smaller than expected.
None of this makes the walk any less enjoyable. Large patches of forest stretch over the hillsides, the ridges act as thin separator to the blue sky and white clouds More and more clearings appear in the forest. In contrast to the vegetation the terraced fields are not much greener than three weeks ago.
There is a feeling of 'going back' in the air, a little bit of sadness but at the same time a happy feeling to soon meet friends again in Kathmandu.
Bridges that seemed shaky on the way up cause not the slightest worries anymore, maybe running through rockslides and camping in (admittedly very minor) snowstorms increases one's courage. Most houses are built high on the hillsides since the valley is narrow at its bottom. Near Tapethok town the valley is flat, and though this plain is mainly used for agriculture a few wooden cabins were built, mainly to do business along the main trail. Needless to say, it is not a very charming village, but it was decided to have lunch here.
I lie down and take a nap on a field just before the town when suddenly two gunshots wake me up. A wedding is taking place in the village and the shots were part of the ceremony. Everybody is celebrating - except for the future husband and wife. I know that in general the bride is not encouraged to look happy even if she is, because she must display sadness about leaving her parents home. But in this case she really seems not to enjoy it. Dendi says she is 23, but then reduces her age to 17, which is still too high. He seems slightly embarrassed so I stop inquiring further.
The bride's girlfriends wear fine jewelry and red saris. As soon as the 'cameras are loaded' they flee the scene. Cameras are put into people's faces: the thin line that separates genuine interest from superficial curiosity has once more been crossed by a tourist.
I wouldn't mind continuing straight to the campsite, which is only an hour further down the river. Instead we spend a long time in the village so that everyone can have lunch. When dark clouds move up the valley I am off again. There is much more 'traffic on the road', maybe a festival calls for a family reunion or people are returning home after spending the winter in the lowland.
The small flat areas along the river are used for vegetables and grain fields whenever possible, oxes and cows pull wooden ploughs through the heavy mud. Farmers try to steer them with either gentle whistling or - more often - shouted commands. Agriculture is very labor-intensive, still the rate of under-employment is about 50%. If you consider that more than 80% of Nepalis work as farmers and half of the population is under 21, the outlook is bleak.
I arrive in Chirwa just in time to find protection from the rain in a little teahouse. After the pleasant days in Ghunsa the atmosphere here seems less friendly and less reserved. The officer at checkpost tries to impress the other villagers by showing off his status, two half-drunk tough-acting young men don't add to the cheerfulness of the town. A shabby unfriendly village, hunger, rain - all the worst things come together at once - my attitude drops. A young girl who goes to school in Taplejung and is visiting relatives speaks good English but somehow I am not very talkative, which makes me feel sorry later.
Two porters arrive one hour later and tell me that we are camping near the river. The tents are already put up and the entire luggage is there. This leaves no excuse for an extensive laundry session. The river is much warmer, almost tolerably warm, a great opportunity for a short swim. Even after extensive cleaning and doing laundry it is still early. Everybody, including our crew, lies around lazily and enjoys the fine day.
When dusk settles arrives the kitchen boys start fetching water from the river, one hour later we have pasta for dinner.
Chirwa - Phuromba (Day 22)
Stars blink between the clouds when I go to bed, and there is no sound of rain hammering the tent at night. I wake up when the sun hits the camp. The first I notice is the fresh smell of the forest.
Soon it becomes foggy, tourists on the way to Ghunsa tell us that the airport in Suketar was closed for five days. We stock up on fresh fruit in the village, which means instead of custard and canned fruitsalad we'll have bananas and apples for dessert from now on. Well, almost. The entire custard supplies were being sent down with us. If the gods are just, this will mean 10 inches more snow on Joel's tent :) As we found out later, that's exactly what happened in Lhonak.
It's the first time on the trek we see 'regular' Nepali tourists. The two women look a little out of place in their beautiful saris. They are probably visiting Pathibhara, a very important Hindu temple on the very top of a hill. Thousands of devotees from eastern Nepal and neighbouring parts of Darjeeling are paying tribute to the Devi's shrine during two festivals. A man from the district has been visiting the temple continuously for the past 55 years. People believe it will fulfill the wishes of devotees, like Mankamana Temple in Gorkha. Until this year, the offerings were burned or buried in the snow. Now they are kept and put into a bank account. There are even plans for a cable car (which would be the 2nd in Nepal).
The biggest disadvantage of taking almost exactly the same way back is that you still remember the distances, something you don't really want to know when you walk in bad weather. It's the first time the weather is really shite. The beautiful villages we walk through seem empty, those who don't have to tend the goats are probably working inside the house. After a picturesque hamlet surrounded by fields and bamboo, the trail turns into a Nepali version of a freeway: large stones tiles were used to form a trail with stairs that seem never-ending. Finally the top is near, rewarding us with fine views of the Tamur river which is runs far below. Wide rice fields take up the space between the river and the hill, the subtle differences in the tones of green and yellow looks beautiful. Terraces cover entire hillsides from the bottom up to the ridge. If it weren't for the patches of forest and white and orange houses it would look like the steps of a gigantic natural green pyramid.
I am pretty sure that I took the right trail, but there were a few tricky forks and I wait for others. Dendi arrives first and I hurry on with him, the alternatives are between getting drenched from the inside (sweat) or getting drenched from the outside (rain). The first choice is better and we walk quickly up the many hills and run down the other side. Endless little creeks and hilltops later we reach the most beautiful Rai house in the area, the one I noticed on the way up, and Dendi ask the owner if we can use their living room for cooking and eating. The oldest daughter watches the house, luckily she agrees. She is 16 years old, her younger sister is about to leave and watch the three goats. The meticulously painted house is kept very clean, the ground floor serves as living room, and upstairs are sleeping quarters. The fire that was put out is being started again and the hostess rolls out bamboo mats for us. A separate building across the courtyard serves as a stable and keeping utensils. I rest on a carpet on the porch, watching the ducks, dog, pig, goat and chicken. Rain drops off the roof.
Dal baht for everyone! A hot meal is a fantastic treat after four hours in the rain. While we enjoy desert - mango slices, like custard not liked my many people, luckily I enjoy both - the rain has lessened. Ankle-high puddles of water have formed on the muddy trails, luckily no leeches have realized their chance.
Just when I reach Tagelum, the place of the endless terraces, the weather changes instantly. The clouds break, the sun appears on the blue sky and illuminates the rice fields that cling to the hillside. The fierce sun dries the trail and my clothes and shoes quickly. Within a minute the last four hours are forgotten: the beauty of the moment is all that counts.
This is probably the most crucial thing one needs to fully enjoy trekking; of course being in reasonably good shape and having decent equipment is a precondition. But in the end all that counts is "simple things should make you happy".
I sit down near a school and watch the last cloud evaporates and sun shine on the terraces. I must have sat there for quite awhile since everybody catches up with me. A little side-trip to the school shows a sad scene: There are probably two hundred children crammed in the two-story government school, the five teachers are clearly not in command and when the kids see me the chaos is really about to happen. The kids run out of the classrooms, teachers yell at them and try to push them back.
No wonder even the poorest farmer tries to save as much money as possible to send his children to a boarding school. Not all government schools are that bad, yet just the ratio of students per teacher makes it almost impossible to get a quality education.
Teachers cannot take care of the slow learning kids, and the fast learners do not get special attention either. This would not be that bad if everybody was guaranteed to live a decent life as farmer in ten years, but prospects are bleak. Land has to be split into pieces for inheritance so small that it cannot support everybody. And getting jobs in the Terai is not easy. A good education would not only increase chances because of the knowledge that children gained, maybe more important is the higher self-esteem that comes with it.
The last two days were more strenuous than I expected. From the next ridge we can finally see the school where we camped the first night. After the second 'little side valley' the last of today's ascents begins. Once again I don't remember having descended that many steps from Phuromba. But then I am at the soccerfield below the school where a little match is about to start. Despite my heavy hiking boots I manage to show some tricks, but nevertheless (or because of that?) I am not invited to participate. Later I'm asked to join, but two dozen kids crowd around the small field already.
The group from Sweden that we met is very nice people, but they are so eager to wash their clothes (after their first day of trekking) that I wonder how they'll be doing in a week when everything will either be dusty or muddy. They plan to visit the south side of Kangchenjunga, hopefully no more snow fell at Kangchenjunga's south base camp because this could also stop 'our' longer group who changed plans. As it turned out, Joel and the exploring team never got quite to the border of Tibet due to deteriorating weather. Lhonak got a big amount of snow (including 'our' 10 inches as punishment for Joel for keeping all the ketchup and giving us all the custard instead) which slowed down the whole group. And not everybody was well-enough equipped for an exploration at 5'000 meters. They did not attempt Tengkoma and broke camp in Lhonak earlier than planned. Instead they visited the south side of Kangchenjunga which was probably more beautiful than they expected.
Jogidanda - Suketar (Day 23)
I need better earplugs. Thanks to howling dogs, our last day of trekking starts early. I get up, pack my stuff, take down the tent and am ready. Breakfast on the balcony offers great views of the Tamur valley. Just a week ago we were freezing in our tents at night. But that's a thing of the past... until the next trek coming year.
Already clouds start building up, hopefully we can fly out tomorrow. But first we have to reach the airstrip. The walk gently up the green valley is rougher than on the trek in but also more pleasant thanks to the recent rain. A white peak overtops the forested ridge at the horizon, locals claim it is Jannu. Forest and rice terraces are predominant, small villages seem empty but a mani-wall indicates the presence of Sherpas who have settled here. After guessing about the trail I turn around five minutes later and with the help of a Sherpa woman find the trail that goes to Suketar. The red clay trail follows along the fields, some of which are already harvested. In others, the seeds have sprung and little green plants sprout.
Suketar is in sight on the hilltop, the houses ahead on the plateau are not as beautiful as the Rai hamlets where we started this morning, but nevertheless we are happy to have arrived at the finishing line. As always, reaching the end of the trek is a mix between melancholic feelings and achievement. Memories come back, and itineraries for future treks are in my head.
But right now I enjoy lying in the warm sun, taking off my hiking boots for good and waiting for the kitchen crew to arrive.
We settle down in a lodge and sort out our flights and the ones of the later group. Doing laundry, catching up with diaries, trading old stuff takes up the rest of the afternoon. Sunset offers a spectacular view and a perfect ending: Jannu and Kangchenjunga glow orange high above the valleys that are already in the dark, clouds move in and hide everything below the pink summits.
Twenty minutes later the scenic highpoint is followed by the culinary one: rice, superb yellow dal and curry potatoes are a delicious dinner. I try not to overeat and keep some empty room for a cake that the others doubt will arrive because we had a cake on Rein's birthday just a two days ago. But the carrot cake does arrive. With a full stomach and a head full of memories, I fall asleep on the hard but comfortable plank-bed.
20th April 2001: Suketar - Biretnagar - Kathmandu (Day 24)
First thing in the morning is to check the weather. Will the flight be cancelled? Probably not. Are great morning views likely? Yes. We pack and enjoy the last breakfast.
The excess luggage costs more than planned, but we can help Dendi out and get all the stuff into the plane. After a few minutes of unloading and loading we are ready for take off. The runway ends in a sheer drop, the views of the valley are nice but it is too hazy to see any of the big 24'000 feet mountains. After twenty minutes the land becomes entirely flat and we're over the Terai where no rain seems to have fallen.
We want to stay in the plane in Biretnagar since Dendi told us that the same plane goes to Kathmandu. The stewardess is adamant in getting us out of the plane so we step off and queue up with some fairly large (or better: wide) Indian looking 'ladies' who overrun us five minutes later and get in the plane. After asking the stewardess again the mystery is solved: she does not speak English, and the airplane definitely goes not to Kathmandu.
After making sure that our luggage is out of the plane, we walk to the airport hall a little confused and are happy to spot the local 'representative' of Explore Himalaya who quickly organizes all the necessary steps. He managed to get seats on booked flights (just one of the few advantages of going with a well-established agency), we just have to wait 3 hours.
Compared to Nepalganji, Biretnagar is a nice place to hang out. The nap in the shade of palm trees is disturbed once by an argument between riksha drivers. One younger driver broke the line and the small argument is leading to a general shuffle between the older and younger drivers and one fistfight.
Our flight is a little delayed but since it is long too late for good views nobody cares. The middle hills are very dry, red clay and deforestation are a sad sight compared to the lush green terraces in fall. The Kathmandu valley is much greener and after a few bumpy moments when flying over the ridges the plane lands safely in Kathmandu.
High on my list after a trekking is the (almost ritual) ceremony of spending at least one hour in a hot bath-tub. What a pleasure! That's followed by an excellent Indian dinner at Moti Mahal. I am back in civilization. For good or bad.
The two weeks in Kathmandu passed quickly. I stayed in Boudha with a very nice Tibetan family; enjoyed various Newari festivals; a big Buddhist celebration happened in Boudha where I met many Sherpas I haven't seen for years. I enjoyed all Nepal has to offer.
Carsten Nebel, 20 January 2002
For a picture version, go to http://www.myhimalayas.com/kangchenjunga/