For a picture version, go to http://www.myhimalayas.com/kangchenjunga_olungchungkola/
The flight from Delhi to Kathmandu is dull at first, but when the haze disappears and white mushroom clouds indicate the small mountain range of southern Nepal I can feel my excitement increase. When we approach Nepalís capital a spectacular mountain range in the north rises above the clouds and culminates in the black pyramid of Mount Everest. What a contrast to the pretty green rice terraces in the valley below.
While waiting in the taxi, I enjoy the views of Ganesh Himal and the fact that Iím in Nepal once again. The airport is guarded by armed troops, and during the drive to the city I notice military posts at strategic sections. The Maoist uprising has reached the capital, giving proof of their success in the countryside despite the fact that the army has stepped in and confronts them militarily.
As usual I stay in the Hotel Utse, a cozy hotel few minutes out of Thamel. It is owned by a Tibetan couple, managed by the wife and her daughter whoís in Canada right now doing further studies like so many wealthy Tibetans and Nepali. Despite the fact that Iíve often come to Nepal already, it still feels very good to arrive and be greeted by people who remember you and are happy to see you.
Apart from short sightseeing trips around Thamel I take a mountain flight to Everest. Itís a fine day, but the plane has to wait until the fog lifts. Eventually weíre in the air. The Ganesh range and Langtang that were also visible from the ground get bigger and bigger. Gauri Shankar is another mountain thatís distinctive among the dozens of peaks. Then the plane changes direction and flows directly towards the mountains. The number of peaks is stunning, and to imagine that people manage to survive in the valleys is difficult. From up here it looks as if the landscape consists mainly of peaks, and a few narrow valleys in between. If youíre trekking the same valleys seem large, and the peaks are the exception and not the norm, because you usually see only those peaks around you and not the overwhelming number number. Cho Oyo is the first 8í000 meter peak that I spot. To the left is a pyramid peak that I remember when looking over the plateau from Tingri in Tibet Ė back in 1998. And then there is a brown corridor leading south Ė Nangpa La pass which is still used by yak caravans from Tibet that visit the Saturday market in Namche Bazaar.
From the cockpit the view is even more amazing: countless white peaks rise from the dark ground and pierce into the blue sky. Everest and Lhotse form the horizon, further on is Makalu and in the distance the Kangchenjunga massif rises out of the thin mist. Closer by the distinctive Ama Damblam stands out.
The plane makes a right turn and passes by Everest so closely that the south col is clearly visible. After twenty minutes this turnaround marks the start of the way back. The ďsmallerĒ mountains are as impressive as the 8í000 m peaks, if not in height then certainly in elegance, especially where wind has formed the snow and makes the flanks look as if supported by hundreds of pillars of snow.
At Boudha I meet the rest of the group for sightseeing. Iím desperately trying to find all the pieces of the Tibetan game ďsho paraĒ, and after half an hour succeed after a hard bargain to buy the last missing pieces, 60 small conch shells from a Nepali shop owner. In the afternoon we visit Bhaktapur together, the most beautiful of the three ancient cities in the valley. It is still intact, and both architecture and way of living offer a glimpse into the not so distant past of the kingdom.
Uncharacteristically for Kathmandu, the mountains were visible from the city the last two days. In the hazy distance above the green hills that surround the fertile valley, the snow-clad summits rise far into the sky. I canít wait to walk between the high valleys among those giants. Finally the trek begins.
The political situation in Nepal is tense, but in most areas trekking is still safe. (Update: In 2004 it has deteriorated. Advice: check the latest info before you decide where to go trekking). I visited many parts of Nepal, but I was lucky to find a trek at that time of the year that goes to an area that a) I havenít been before and b) offers room for exploring and c) is organized by a great company.
The two valley systems west of Kangchenjunga have been opened for tourism just last year: Olungchungkola (or Wallung) and Yangma. Itís remote, and due to complicated logistics not likely to be overrun anytime soon. Iím trekking with projecthimalaya.com, where the mix between great organization and flexibility usually means things work out perfectly for everybody. Jamie and his girlfriend Nicola will be guiding, Joel will be leading another trek around Manaslu.
I couldnít find any current information about the area. Two books written in the 19th century describe the area briefly. In 1848 the British botanist J.D. Hooker visited Sikkim and the north-east of Nepal. Around 1880 the British Indian Survey sent the Indian pundit Chandra Das went a second time to Tibet to ďexploreĒ the land north of India. This time he tried a route further west of Lhonak, and passed Yangma. His acccount in the annex of Frehsfieldís ďRound KangchenjungaĒ stops in Yangma, and I couldnít find the entire report (supposedly it was reprinted by the American diplomat Rockhill).
The worst chaos in the domestic airport is over when we get there at 0830. Since the weather is fine the bulk of the flights have left on time. The chartered plane that takes us directly to Suketar is full; luckily I get a left window seat. To the south are low curvy ranges that follow each other and slowly disappear in the hazy distance of the Indian subcontinent. Two minutes after take-off the single white peaks we saw from the ground become connected by further peaks and snowy ridges. Three peaks of the Ganesh range appear first, then the Langtang range with the massive 7í246 meter peak and - most impressive - Gauri Shankar. The foot of the Himalayan range in the north starts off with terraced hillsides, in the valleys flow blue-grayish rivers that spring from the mountains' glaciers. All the valleys seem to lead northwards and are stopped by the range, which - after a breach that leads to the Tibetan plateau - becomes increasingly higher. The 8'000 meter peaks of Sishapangma and Cho Oyo are topped by the Everest, and then Makalu comes in sight. Though a few hundred meters lower than Everest, it is the most striking peak because no mountains block the view of its intimidating south face. The Arun river that runs in the valley below leads directly to the glaciers of the mighty mountain. Further east the range is getting lower. Just as you suspect that it has ended, the separate massif of Kangchenjunga appears and dominates the scenery. The range starts with the remarkable western outpost of Jannu (Khumbukarna). The main summit of Kangchenjunga is harder to detect because several little peaks are connected by the 15 km long ridge that runs at 8'000 m. The southern range leading up to it forms the border to Sikkim. The whole massif looks like an isolated island of ice in an ocean of green hills.
Suddenly the plane drops, and - with its nose down - seems to fly straight into a hillside. We exchange semi-reassuring looks, ďthe pilot knows what heís doing and it must be like thisĒ. Some seconds later a flat plateau appears and thanks to the up wind the plane hits the runway. The angle of the runway slows the plane down quickly. We've arrived safely after a stunning 1-hour flight.
Our crew is waiting for us, they arrived yesterday after a tough 4-day bus ride. Farmers are happy about the summerís monsoon, bus drivers arenít. The rain was heavy this year and has left road conditions worse than usual. Most of the loads came by bus and are prepared already, but it will take some time to sort out and distribute our gear. Time to relax and get to know the crew and my co-trekkers: Jamie from project-himalaya.com and his girlfriend Nicola will be guiding, both were in the area last year. Tenba and Ang Dami were on my previous Manaslu trek (see http://www.myhimalayas.com/manaslu)and am happy that we can trek together again. Tremaine from Australia took a climbing course in the Khumbu before, and is mainly here for mountaineering. Andy and Sharron from England are on a world tour and have just arrived from a long river rafting tour on the Sun Kosi. Theyíve done some climbs in other parts of the world. For the first few days we will trek with Jane and her husband Glenn who will then visit the north of Kangchenjunga. Everybody seems nice and easy-going.
After an early lunch we leave the village and are soon on a wide trail between fields. Corn is ripe; in some fields villagers are ploughing already. Green and yellow terraces dot the hillside higher up. During the easy downhill walk, the green millet fields become more numerous. The yellow fields are rice which will soon be harvested. Near Suketar is a large Sherpa community. The isolated hamlets further north seem to be inhabited by Limbu and Rai. When we descend into the valley, the great views of mountains we had from Suketar disappear behind a holy hill named Pathibara. We won't climb it. It is a long climb up to almost 4í000 meters, but done frequently by Nepali tourists and pilgrims who visit the Hindu shrine on top. I heard of an old man who did the pilgrimage over 60 times - once every year - to honor the gods. On the right side of the Tamur valley is the other holy mountain, Manabhara, slightly lower but it seems inaccessible from here.
Fern and bamboo grows in the shady places where rivulets run from higher up. In those cool side valleys the variety of trees and other plants is large, in the open the smaller pants are still green but in a few weeks they will be dry and barren. Isolated houses are spread over the hillsides, the whitewashed buildings are surrounded by terraces. Flowers, vegetables and trees grow around the house. The orange of marigolds mixes nicely with the red and white walls of the thatched roofed houses. Parents' are out mending the fields, and their children in blue school uniforms are on their way home. They are shy and start to giggle when being asked simple questions in English. The pleasant temperatures, fragrant wind and nice afternoon sunlight make this a perfect first day in the middle hills. We walk through the millet fields, pass the houses and enjoy the stunning and relaxing atmosphere. The hills get higher towards north, cumulus clouds mushroom into the blue afternoon sky.
After a wonderfully relaxing sleep a rooster wakes me, and not the screaming of school children. The school where we camped in the courtyard does not seem to be used anymore. It might have been closed down by the Maoists.
Today's route will have some up's and down's and be a gentle introduction for our leg muscles. In the afternoon we should hit the Tamur river and camp near its bank. At first the trail leads down into a dense forest. Moss, bamboo and fern grow along the path. Bridges cross the numerous creeks that flow down in narrow and steep green valleys. Some of the bridges are rather old, the foundation is usually fine but the wooden planks are either missing or squeaking, swinging is included. Where the forest has be cleared a little, people set up cardamom plantations: the dark green leaves stand out in he shade of the forest.
The scenery gets prettier and prettier. The dry cornfields have ended and endless rice terraces cover the hills. They look like golden steps that climb up from far down and end just below the ridges. The blue sky contrasts nicely with the yellow color, white puffy clouds add to the whole scenery. Far down the Tamur flows towards the plains, rapids add white tones to the greenish river. Where the monsoon washed away the trail we have to do a detour and climb up steeply. The reward is a fine walk through the fields to settlements above the main trail which are very picturesque. Flowers and vegetable gardens make the locations even nicer. In separate open air stables are pigs, chickens run around the house. Goats and cows are not left alone to roam around. Kids or women watch the valuable livestock. Of course their lives aren't as idyllic as it seems, but compared to the life in the Terai it seems much better.
Around noon the sun beats down strongly, and during the many short climbs sweat flows and the salt burns in the eyes. In the forest it is much cooler than on the exposed parts. After taking the wrong trail I end up in the village Thiwa. A friendly man walks me through backyards to the main trail again. I notice somebody sitting on the gate above the bridge that spans a deep side-valley. When I'm down at the bridge he still sits there. Somehow I get a strange feeling, people don't just sit for minutes on end, and the person is too big to be just a kid with spare time. Since we're in Maobadi country I wait for the rest of the group. My feeling was right; the boy (probably not older than 18) is a "representative" of the Maoist party and asks for "donations". Our crew is intimidated. Jamie tells him to "come to camp because you don't just ask people for money on the trail". Surprisingly enough weíre allowed to go on.
From Thiwa on the scenery changes: the hillsides get steeper and only burned yellow fern manages to cling to the dark rock. The terrain gets rougher, the river is constant whitewater. A few more climbs and descends, and then the trail reaches the river. Huge black boulders are strewn over the wide valley. Chiruwa, a collection of half a dozen houses, lies between the rocks. We pass the village and head to the campsite thatís on an empty rice field a few minutes outside the village. The black rocks in the yellow rice increase the stunning colors. The village earns a little money for renting the space and the simple shelters which we use as a kitchen. After dropping the loads, the porters are about to leave to find a place to stay in the village when the "Maoist representative" arrives. He has a long discussion with Jamie. The porters crowd around and listen carefully, laughing at some of Jamie's comments. The Maobadi is in the defense and seems more nervous than Jamie. If he weren't extorting money from us you'd feel sorry for him. The original price of 5'000 rupees for each tourist (US$ 70) eventually drops to US$ 15. After handing out the receipt the kid leaves and we won't be bothered again. This easy confrontation with Maoists gives some tourists the false impressions that the Maoists are nice, well-behaved people that aren't a threat to anyone. Their treatment of villagers is often harsher, both by Maoists themselves but also by the army.
As dusk sets in, the last of the porters arrived. This has been a long day, and the loads are still quite heavy since we haven't used much fuel or food yet. Iím also tired, the drop of 300 meters was achieved with climbing up and down, and not straight-forward. Iím not in great shape yet.
I wake up a few times sweating, the night is quite warm. In the early morning some raindrops hit the tent, at breakfast clouds still linger but the rain has stopped. The overcast makes it cooler than yesterday, but after a few minutes the humidity makes me sweating like the previous day. The valley was probably formed by a glacier a long time ago; high above the river the rocks are completely smooth. Monsoon rain has led to quite a high water, and large parts of the riverbank were tore down some weeks ago. Dense jungle grows along the Tamur river, after an hour the valley opens up at Tapethok.
The flat valley floor is covered by rice fields which are almost ready for harvesting. Dotted in the hillsides stand dozens of houses. Trees separate the various tones of green and yellow. Harvesting the terraces must be incredibly hard work, considering the number of the endless little fields and the steepness. In those parts of the valley that are too steep for agriculture, the forest is still dense. Moss and lichen cover the trees and rocks. Small rivulets cross the path. Cardamom was planted in the flat parts of the forest. For a long time we walk without passing any houses. Just before Tamewa, where we have lunch, a large flock of goat is crossing the suspension bridge on their way south to Taplejung. Another bridge with ancient planks crosses the rivulet that must be a torrent during the summer monsoon. After regular lunch I get an additional portion of spicy vegetable potato curry with rice.
Villages haven't seen any development in the last three years, on the contrary. Where there were lodges, teahouses or local shops that created a little profit from tourists and local travelers, the houses are all locked up. The Maoists have forbidden the sale of soft drinks and beer. In some parts of Nepal women initially welcomed the ban of alcohol, though the ban of regular beer doesn't safe villages from alcoholism since it was too expensive for locals anyway. Too much entrepreneurship is probably also suspicious to the Maoists, though this is just my guess. The lack of income leads to a quick reduction of opportunities in a region where agriculture is the only industry, and cardamom the only cash crop and thus the only possibility to generate cash. The cherry-sized fruit has a sweet and stingy taste, reminding me of toothpaste. Not many places on earth are suitable for its cultivation, and the demand for it as sweetener, spice and medicine is large. 1 kilo is worth eight dollars. After harvesting the pulps are dried over an open fire, then carried in bags to Taplejung and exported to India via Biretnagar.
From high above the river we look down the valley where we came from, and ahead to Sekathum where we will camp tonight. The steep walls are covered by trees; moss and lichen become a more dominant feature in the inaccessible parts of the valley. Fallen leaves make the trail look like a red carpet in a green tunnel. In the dry parts along the river, pine needles cover the path. The yellow fern creates a very different atmosphere. The variety of butterflies is decreasing, and they are becoming smaller and less colorful the higher we get. The afternoon walk is short, after another climb we traverse a steep rock face and descend in the forest of a side valley. The water from the glacier of Kanchenjunga merges with the Tamur that springs 50 kilometers further north. After a cold but refreshing bath in the glacial water and a set of new clothes the comfort level has reached a new height. Just before dinner as dusk sets in and the trees are reduced to contours, it starts to drizzle. It gets chilly and the soup is a very welcome starter of another fine dinner.
Rain increases as I fall asleep. Every time I wake up, the sound of raindrops hitting the tent seems to be getting louder. In the early morning, wind comes up which brings in more low hanging clouds and mist. Initially I welcome the wind because it seems to be the only thing that can move the gray cover from the sky. Our hopes are dashed when the wind continues and, instead of helping to clear, brings more and more clouds up. The bright spot closes and gray becomes the dominating color again. The trail and future campsites have probably turned into swamps - if not by now then they will be after our groups has passed - and walking in a downpour is not my liking at all. The decision to postpone departure to the afternoon suits me first. But after hours of lying in the tent, reading, and eating chocolate Iím itching to move. However, a look at the few sodden by-passers that are soaking wet reminds me of the fact that I really am a fair-weather hiker par excellence. It's interesting to note how quickly the regular Western restlessness disappears when trekking: after some time cursing the weather you get used to the thought that it is out of your control. And I stop worrying about it. The moment is perfect as it is: enjoying a nap in the tent, listening to the rain, and the occasional glimpse out of the tent that increases the feeling of complete comfort even more. Iím not alone, my dry tent has turned into an Ark Noah for insects.
Across the river the last monsoon tore down parts of the hillside. The rain that currently collects higher up and runs down in rivulets manages to send down decent sized boulders every few minutes. They land in a big crash near the river, the sound reminds me of fireworks. Our porters cheer, yell and whistle every time a larger load comes down. We tourists are equally interested, and stare for quite some time. What a lazy afternoon.
Some tourists on their way to Suketar arrive soaking wet from Amjilosa. Their porters haven taken the rarely used trail on the other side of the river. Our crew yells at them to run quickly and points at the rock fall. Those who run as quickly as to indicate fear get cheered at and everybody laughs loudly. Five minutes after the last porter crossed, the biggest landslide so far crashes down. Large boulders break into smaller pieces as they hit the floor, some fall into the river.
Tenbaís brother if the official cook, but a few Sherpa assist and the meals are the highlight of the day. After a vegetable pizza I'm ready for bed. Tihar festival is today, as presents the village girls give us some marigold flowers. Porters play music and sing, the girls from the village start dancing and the least shy porters join in. Later most crew member join the dance but at that critical stage Ė the expectation of tourists dancing might arise - I'm already half asleep and walk back to the tent. As I doze off I think about the friendliness and hospitality of Nepali people who, in addition to a hard life now have to worry about their very lives. They are caught between the army and the Maoists, and neither offers opportunities for a better future. Maybe it's the dull weather, but I felt that amidst the happy party was a sense of melancholy and a desperate attempt to forget their situation for some hours. But again, it's likely that this impression is wrong.
Patches of blue sky give hope for a better day, though the little drizzle could be an indication of more rain to follow. Nevertheless, we pack up and start after breakfast since the next campsite is not too far away. We climb up from the bridge to the "village" which is situated on a little plateau above the river. Two houses stand in the middle of millet fields. Higher up is a third house whose owner - if all the cows in the gate are his own - must be quite wealthy.
The trail above the river descends to a bridge that spans the wild river that has eaten a deep narrow canyon in the valley. From higher up the whole chasm is filled by whitewater, an impressive sight. Waterfalls punctuate the steep cliffs. There must be something special about this forest, for the first and only time we see green parrots fly around, the color of the feathers makes them invisible when they land in the trees. Patches of mist slowly move along the steep walls, the sun illuminates some houses and terraces and gives the scenery an appearance of a dramatic painting.
The late season-rain and the large number of people mean itís party time for leeches. Some of us get sucked, the reaction ranging from complete ignoring (porters), a shrug and removal (Andy) to a slightly hysteric stampede (Nicola). I spot some of the small creatures while they wriggle their way up on my boot and hiking stick, but have enough time to flick them away before they reach the skin.
The wealthiest village in this valley is Lungthung. A large mani wall stands in the center; a dozen houses are spread out and separated by fields of millet and corn. The people have distinctive Tibetan features and clothing, but they celebrate Tihar like the people further down: the doors are decorated with flowers, the cows carry garlands of marigold around their necks.
Lonely huts occupy the few flat spots in the valley. The fields are very small and cannot possibly support a person let alone an entire family. They're probably just used for storage and spending nights during harvest season.
The next two hours are climbs along steep hillsides, either in the forest or in open spaces. A look up the valley reveals nothing that could suit as a large enough campsite. A last climb takes us up to harvested fields of corn where one of the terraces serves as the campsite. Assuming there is a large village higher up, I go for a walk but find only two small houses. The two families who own the few fields live there. Two other houses were destroyed by landslides and haven't been rebuilt. Live at high altitude seems harsh, but considering the small settlements, it must be even more difficult here. Temperatures are probably better here, but there is hardly any room for agriculture or husbandry, and no oppportunities for trade.
After an early dinner I'm in bed before 20.00. Two hours later it sounds as if hell broke loose. There's noise, commotion, light. Some villagers have come to party. The blurring radio and their singing is not appreciated, I'm not sure if they are more friendly or more drunk, probably the later. I usually appreciate visits by village people who raise some money by dancing and singing, but this cultural show was a bit too rapturous. Jamie yells at them to piss off (I assume), and soon itís quiet again.
A perfectly sunny morning is the biggest motivation to get moving. Several trail leave the village towards the north, and it is not easy to pick the right one, since there are old and new trails but it's hard to tell which is which. The old upper trail is more spectacular; it climbs up to the ridge and continues on the right side of the river almost all the way to Olungchungkola. After the ticks and leech experience from last year, Jamie advices to try the new trail further down. Parts of it have already been washed away and we cross some muddy gullies where a slip is not recommended. The water of the Tamur comes down in constant cascades, additionally fed by little waterfalls from both sides of the valley. The trail is wide until it reaches a bridge that crosses the torrent. To access the head of the bridge we climb up a shaky looking stair that was built from thousand of stones.
So far we've walked in open space or open forests. The left side of the river gets the sun much later, and the cool temperatures have lead to a much denser vegetation. The narrow path is overgrown in some parts, or just wide enough to walk single file line through the bushes. Often it climbs up steeply between huge moss-covered boulders. The stones laid down by the road builders are often slippery; nevertheless they make walking a bit easier. Forcing a trail through the jungle and placing the stones must be a terribly hard and time-consuming work. The climbs and descents are quite strenuous. Despite the humidity, the weather is great. The sun is still hiding between white clouds and the trees help to retain the morning coolness for a long time. Walking through here in brilliant sunshine or rain would be terrible.
Then the forest becomes less dense, and though it was to interesting to walk in it, there's a bit of relief to get out of the dark and humid jungle. We enter a bamboo forest that is interspersed with tall trees that are less suffocating and offer views: just below us is a 600 feet drop straight down the roaring river, far ahead a craggy mountain with fresh snow rising above the junction of two valleys. The sheer cliffs are hardly visible because no matter how steep they are, vegetation covers them. The threatened Red Panda lives here, but of course they're too shy just to see them along the trail. Compared to these valleys, the 5'000 meter passes to Tibet look easy.
The difficulty of terrain is felt by the complete lack of habitation. The only indication that people pass by is the trail itself and one simple stone hut that offers shelter and shade. Gradually the trail takes us down to the river, the cliffs are less steep and the valley gets wider. Colorful trees dominate the scenery. All the reddish trees are small, something must be have wiped out the older trees a few years ago. The scattered boulders resemble huge marbles, green moss covers them and makes this part of the valley very colorful. After the jungle that consisted of only green, the blue sky and white clouds, red trees and the white water are a welcome change. Gurgling creeks come down the steep side valleys, their source near the crags are hidden in mist. Trees with lichen appear as silhouettes on the ridges that play hide and seek.
We sit down between two branches of a sparkling creek to enjoy a pack lunch. A more perfect place would be hard to imagine. Compared to the last two days the variety of scenery is enormous, and a sense of reaching the 'high lands' adds to the excitement.
After lunch it's only a short walk to camp. It'd be possible to walk straight to Olungchungkola but it would be a long days for porters. Luckily we don't have to rush. And enjoying a lazy afternoon at camp is a fine prospect. A meadow covered by high yellow grass is visible from some distance away, then a lhatso with prayerflags on a little elevation and finally three wooden houses. Our porters have arrived and quickly disappear in the houses to drink some tea and chat with the two only people in the village. The houses seem to be second homes. Inside they're almost empty except for a small hearth, a very reduced altar and some boxes with food and ingredients for tea.
I put up my tent near the lhatso; from the hilltop the views down and up the valley are nice. The sun is still up, a short nap in front of the tent is a good end of a short but strenuous walking day. A breeze makes the hot sun tolerable.
After a windy night I expect clouds from the south, but the sky is blue. After a week on trail I feel that the best part of the trek begins. A traditional wooden bridge spans the Tamur, then the trail continues on the right bank through a flat area that is covered by boulders and bushes. At a spectacular tunnel-like formation thousands of liters of glacial water roar down every second. A modern bridge crosses the river, the porters prefer to take the old wooden one higher up. Several fields of rockslide need to be crossed. Landslides seem to be common in summer when the rocks becomes unstable due to the water that collects higher up. Now only small rivulets come down from the ridge. At a shady place the porters sit down and cook their 10 o'clock dal baht. Iím a bit envious.
There must be a side valley to the left where the old trading route with Tibet was but I canít see a breach in the valley wall. It looks like we've reached a dead end. But it canít be, since the river must be coming from somewhere. Suddenly a loud noise indicates a waterfall. The water shoots through a 15 feet wide cleft in the wall. We canít follow the river any longer, the path taking a different route now.
Further ahead a massive landslide has taken down the entire trail. Locals are trying to stabilize the wall and, after a short warning, send down loose rocks. A temporary trail crosses the landslide and climbs up through forest. With one eye on the trail and the other watching for rocks I run across the gullies. A steep climb across bamboo forest is difficult for the porters with their bulky baskets. When we hit the wide main trail it is only a few minutes to the pass in the fir forest. Prayerflags and one overgrown lhatso indicate not only the pass, but also beginning of the valley of Olungchungkola. It is a very humble announcement of a most fantastic alpine valley that is stunning both in scenery and culture.
A snowy peak at the horizons is contrasted by dark blue sky, the red and yellow trees in the deciduous forest add to the play of color. On a plateau overlooking the milky blue river stands a large monastery with traditional orange coloured brick walls. The village houses doesn't come in sight until we reach the entrance. Two dozen large shingled houses are built on a plateau below the monastery. Vegetable gardens reach to the edge of the cliff, juniper trees cover the hillside. School must be over (Tihar festival?), children run around in the village and welcome the change of visiting tourists. They are active and loud, but in a very nice manner.
They look very Tibetan, and the village gives a similar impression. However, the people are slightly different than the ethnic groups from Tibet and adjoining areas in Nepal, and are considered a separate indigenous people with their own Tibetan dialect. The entire region is called Olangchung Gola, and consists of the area from Yangma in the far north down to Ghunsa and Lelep in the south. 1í500 people live in those villages. Gola means market, and people used to be mainly traders. The Tibetan border is near, and trade was always very imporant. These days modern Chinese goods are also traded. Raising livestock (yak, horse, sheep) and agriculture (barley, wheat, potatoe) is more important than trading. The highest class of Shiwa consists of seven families (the first inhabitants), but the the two other social groups have equal opportunities.
In the afternoon I walk up to the monastery whose compound is marked by prayerflags and two water-driven prayer wheels. Five monks recite prayers from old scripts; an old lama, and educated looking old monk, a senior monk and two laymen. Somebody from the village stops by every twenty minutes to refill the cups with Tibetan tea. An old woman brings vessels with tongba, a slightly alcoholic mixture of fermented barley and hot water. The monks are from the Nyingmapa sect where drinking is allowed.
Most of our porters are Tamang, and therefore Buddhists. Most of them are looking for the lama for blessings. He interrupts his prayers and leads the porters to the lhakang where he pours blessed water from a silver vessel into their hands. This main room that once served as the assembly hall isn't lit; with a torch I see a big statue of Padmasambhava and Chenrezig. Some thangkas are very old, other look rather brand new. Large horns rest disassembled in a corner, a huge drum also seems to be used on special occasions only. The annual ceremony of cham dances could be such a festival. Some masks hang from the pillars, though there must be more in one the many other rooms. The books of the Kandjur and Tandjur fill the racks on the large wall. Opposite the lama's seat is a low rack with statues, some of which look quite old. They are reflecting the torch light very strongly, could it be real gold? Despite its remoteness it wouldn't be that surprising. I'm in the oldest Buddhist monastery in Nepal (apart from one on the Nepali-Indian border). Most of the treasures were brought to Kathmandu by the Nepali king to "ensure their protection". Art theft is a very big problem in Nepal, but I'm skeptical that this is the right approach. The safest protection is a functioning social system in the village itself.
The monastery must have hosted much more monks in earlier times. Most of the numerous large other rooms are empty. But the room below the shrine room contains more statues and thangkas, all worth a much longer inspection. A sick woman rests in the room, she complains about pain in the knee and elbows. I assume it's arthritis but promise to ask Nicola who is a trained nurse. My diagnosis was wrong. The woman might have caught some disease while traveling on bus through the low land in Nepal's south. She lives in Kathmandu and came for a visit, bringing things for the monastery. There is not much we can do to help her. She has to be brought to a real health station.
When I leave the monastery the sun has already disappeared, not unusual in these north-south facing valleys. Itís too chilly to laze around outside, itís either time to put on the down jacket or spend the two hours to dinner in the sleeping bag. Porters have all chipped in to buy a goat, and are looking forward to their barbeque. Others cook rice on an open fire. We have pasta with tomato sauce and grated cheese instead. But first the regular soup which never taste better than on these cold evenings. I'm in the sleeping bag early.
Though we've just arrived, one thing is clear already: Our appetite for exploration exceeds our amount of time. We all agree to walk further up the valley to the north. The map shows some lakes, mountains and passes, but we donít really know what to expect there. Since we've slept at 3'200 meters we shouldn't gain a lot of altitude today and decide on a late start.
After a short detour to the monastery I walk around the village. Stacking up wood is the major activity, the trading season seems over and the yaks are used to carry logs. The men are in the forest, and most of the women busy with household work so it is difficult to find people for a chat.
After lunch we start and follow the river that runs between red bushes and green firs. After an hour the walls get steeper. On our side in the form of high cliffs, across the river it is less steep and thick forest covers the flank up to the ridge. Some of the rockslide areas we pass look very unstable. Out of curiosity I look more closely at some fist-sized white stones with dark stripes, and I smash them. Iím very surprised to find garnet in them and start looking more closely. Quickly Iím the last as the others pass me.
The walking is strenuous, probably due to the altitude. Quite suddenly fogs moves in from the north, in the eerie atmosphere the tall trees seem to come out and disappear constantly. The sun is a bright circle over the forest, lichen moves in the wind and trees a like figures that play hide and seek in the mist. We meet two locals on their way to a grazing area with three yaks. I want to take a close-up of a yak, and grab the camera the wrong way. The top of the lens pops off. It doesnít go back in, and I keep cursing the rest of the walk to camp. (The next morning I somehow manage to fix it. I was always very happy with my Nikon F65, but maybe I should look at the more solid versions).
At various places prayerflags and khatas are wrapped around trees, probably offerings to local deities. At the foot of a snow covered peak the river bends to the east, and a smaller valley continues further north. Smoke and bells come from the little grazing camp there, and the little yak caravan is heading there.
We have gained enough altitude for today and start looking for a site to camp. The ground is covered by large black boulders but we easily find half a dozen spots. Theyíre far away from each other but weíre all tired and happy to get some rest. By the time the porters have arrived, it's close to dusk but still early enough for some laden yaks to pass us on their journey from the grazing area back to Olungchungkola.
I get up before the sun hits and join the porters who are up already. After the warmth of the sleeping bag Iím as eager as them for the rays to rise above the ridge. When the sun hits, the scenery looks quite different from yesterday. Instead of a gloomy (though attractive) valley we can see the mountains that are covered by a thin layer of snow that looks like powdered sugar. The trees indicate the harsher conditions, itís interesting to see how the vegetation changes with every day. The sun brings out the different colors of the forest, yellow and red tones now dominating instead of green.
At first the path goes through fields of large boulders, some of them with an almost unnatural red color (lichen or minerals), those in the river are orange. When the valley gets wider we pass a small rhododendron forest. The hillside across the river is completely covered by them, the inaccessibility has saved them from logging. In spring when they bloom it must be a stunning sight, especially against the background of snow. A wooden bridge takes us to the other side and through a fine juniper forest where a large variety of small birds are hiding. It might be imagination but I feel I can literally smell the mountains. Gentians are in bloom, the ones that just look out of the snow have not blossomed yet, others have opened up and are just a little smaller and of a paler blue than the ones in the Alps. The valley gently slopes upward; snow-covered mountains rise above them to the left. A large grassy area between the forest and the barren valley is a fine grazing ground where dozens of yaks feed on the yellow grass. In some distance on the barren hillside a loaded caravan is making its way towards us. Half an hour later the bell of the lead-yak announces their arrival. A young couple drives the furry animals with whistling, after a short chat with our crew they disappear in the forest.
A lonely stone hut stands between the gnarled fir trees. An old couple has to drive away an aggressive yak bull before they can invite us in. They live sparsely; in the courtyard they have spread some rice and corn for drying it in the sun. We buy a cheese necklace (dried balls of hard cheese), and hurry to catch up with the others. I take some close-ups of yaks, and they donít like it. Iím glad I have a 300mm lens. This last house in the valley also marks the end of trees; further on only bushes cover the slope where several parallel tracks were created by yaks. We rest for some minutes to enjoy the surroundings and watch for blue sheep that might have been forced down to the valley from higher up because of the snowfall from last week. We donít see any.
The snow has melted on the slope weíre walking on, but when we get to the flat bottom of the valley the snow level increases. Though the valley is relatively flat, time could not erase all the signs from the moraines and the trenches and hills make it impossible to see where the crew went. A bridge spans the Tamur river that has become a small creek. Its source is not far from here. We finf footsteps and follow them to a simple tent where two fierce dogs tear on their chain. Despite the snow the yaks are still on the pastures and a young couple watches them.
The kitchen crew has set up the open-air kitchen a few meters away, and already started cooking. Finding spots for our tents takes some time: the flat areas are rare, the ground is wet or snow covered, and the dogs must be out of hearing distance.
It was only a short hike, but the jump in altitude made me tired, so all exploring is postponed to tomorrow. Clouds and fog move in and increase the grandeur of the scenery. To the south small mountains are covered by snow. To the north the mountains are higher but the flanks are too steep to catch much snow, to the east a steep wall with a fissure marks the entry to a side valley that must contain a large glacier thatís eaten its way through the rock. Spectacular peaks rise above the cleft.
We have planned one day of exploring, the easier peaks donít look very interesting for climbing and would constitute only of a long and hard plod through snow. The pass to Tibet suddenly becomes an option. A local man from Olungchungkola will guide us. After estimating that it will take us 3 hours up and 2 hours down we start after a late breakfast at 9.30.
The cleft in the massive rock wall was formed by the glacierís outflow. The gorge is seldom wider than 10 feet. We take the path on the hillside. The storm that kept us at Sekathum for a day dropped a large amount of snow that has mostly melted except for the avalanches that have come down. The chorten in a cave is the only sign that people really pass by. This is a major trade route for people from Walung. Our guide has been here some weeks ago and points out two large caves where he sometimes spends the night.
The higher we get the more of the glacial valley is visible. It looks like a pool of snow that is surrounded by steep mountains on all sides with glaciers forming the lake's inflow. Once weíre in the valley the height of the snow indicates the harsher climate than in the kharka weíve just come from. A stupendous mountain at the end is accompanied by two stunning steep broken glaciers that descend to the beginning of the moraine. The valley resembles an amphitheater as the crevasses give the glacier an impression of stairs. We follow an old moraine and climb slowly up along its flank. Itís hard work to move in the snow.
Weíve been walking for 2 Ĺ hours and our guide says weíre halfway there. He means it as an encouragement, but the effect it has on me is quite the opposite. Far ahead are barren peaks of reddish rock, to the left of it - out of sight - lies the pass. The difficult part has not even started yet, 500 meters more to climb and the snow gets deeper every few minutes. Luckily my shoes are reasonably dry and my feet not cold yet. Sharon decides to turn around because of possible frostbite, Andy goes down with her. We continue after a lunch break.
The clouds that have formed early in the morning have reached us now and hide some of the mountains, luckily the pass is still clear. For the first minutes after lunch I feel energetic but realize that it wonít last long, soon later Iím struggling to keep up. Except Tremaine and me everybody is acclimatized and also in better shape. Our guide in his cheap Chinese canvas shoes walks as if going for a leisurely stroll on the beach. We follow in their footsteps which makes it a bit easier. Iím tempted to turn around a few times, but the closer we get the more stupid it would be. The only thing Iím really worried about is cold feet. The second worry is that Iíve used up all energy (and maybe even a little more) on the way up. But any thoughts of the descent are pushed aside for the time being.
Only one more climb, a little traverse on a fairly flat part, another climb and another flat part says our guide. Every step is hard. Often the snow is knee deep and I try to use the steps from our guide, Jamie and Nicola. But often I break through and sink into powder snow that is waist-deep. This makes even the flat parts very tiring. The climbs are not less tiring. We come across cat prints in the snow. Our guide saw one snow leopard recently that killed a young goat. Many other prints are likely from blue sheep. Thereís also boot prints, probably belonging to Tibetans, who Ė knowing that nobody will be up here in conditions like these Ė sneaked to the Nepali side to hunt for musk deer which can be sold expensively for Chinese medicine.
I concentrate on the trail and try to remember another pass that was this difficult. Shingo La during a snowstorm was equally hard, tough more mentally than physically. The high pass near Tso Moriri in Ladakh was also tough but not nearly as hard as this one. Suddenly we face the last obstacle, a gentle slope. The climb is over and we reach an elevation where prayerflags flatter in the wind. Technically speaking weíve crossed the border and are in Tibet. And we found the source of the Tamur river.
According to our guide weíre the first foreigners on the pass. The area was opened for tourism just recently, and the Chinese side is probably closely guarded. (Iím a bit skeptical and will have to read Hookerís book to see which pass he reached in 1840. He managed to get it here, his description sounds similar to mine. See his interesting book online, xxx)
This is not one of the classical passes from where we see far into the Tibetan plateau or have a stunning view of huge mountains. The valley makes a sharp right turn and only from there is the high plateau visible. A Chinese road ends at the foot of the mountains and traders pick up wares for trading there. The wind on Tibetan side constantly changes the form of the high clouds that contrast with the dark blue sky. Nothing disturbs the visual effect of complete distance from anything.
However, the existence of Olungchungkola and countless other Tibetan settlements south of the border show that these passes are not as impassable as they seem. The real border seems to be the middle hills with their jungle and steep gorges.
We stay half an hour on the pass, throw the lungtaís I brought in the wind yelling ďsosoĒ and ďlha gyalhoĒ and start our long way back. After a change of socks my feet feel very warm again and the worry about frostbite proves unfounded. I feel relieved.
The Nepali side of the pass is cloudy now, and fogs starts to hide the lower parts of the glacier. Itís past 3 already, and a long descent lies ahead of us. The first few steps seem very easy compared to the way up, but we have to struggle to get out of the snow when we sink in too deeply. At some stage my body goes into what I call ďauto-modeĒ, the brain is less active and the legs seem move by themselves without requiring attention or any strength. I know I can go on like that for some hours. We reach the lunch spot after a long time and continue without a break until the end of the moraine. As we sit down for a minute we watch the last sunrays hit the top of the unnamed peak that looks out of the clouds. I'm very tired, but fine. Tremaine is on the verge of throwing up.
I increase my speed in order to get as far as possible before it gets dark. Dusk is soon followed by night. Halfway down the gorge itís dark. Thanks to night vision and a little moonlight itís easy to find the trail even without torch lights. Shortly before reaching the ablation valley three lights flicker on the path Ė Tenba sent two Sherpas to look for us with biscuits and hot drinks. Having such a crew is truly amazing, and I think they know how much we appreciate their work.
Itís only a few more minutes to camp: finally in the tent, I change clothes and lie down for ten long, wonderful seconds. Iím too exhausted to be hungry, almost fall asleep at dinner table and quickly go to bed. On the way I almost bump into one of the young yaks which were driven up here during the day.
Tonight the dog was either very quiet or I was sleeping like a stone. I wake up after uninterrupted sleep with slightly sore muscles in the morning. That and the slightly increased appetite are the only hints of yesterdayís mission. Jamie organized fresh yak milk, and with a little skepticism I try half a cup: it is very tasty, a strong herbal or flowery taste that I would call ďmasala milkĒ. With some clever marketing (and ways of quick transport and hygiene) Iím sure it would sell well. But most of it is probably used for local consumption and cannot be used like the seathorn buck berries in Ladakh (a thorny bush with not much use for locals but plenty of potential as a product for tourists). Itís a splendid day, snow still covers the ground but the sun is warm enough to grant us an open-air breakfast.
The way down is easy, yesterdayís acclimatization and the extra training have helped a lot. Soon weíre crossing the grazing area where we stop to have a last look at the magnificent valley system. We could have spent two more days, going up the Mendolung river but wouldnít have been able to get to the border, or another day going right from here to the Singjengma valley and its two glacial lakes. Sadly we donít have unlimited amount of time and want to explore two more valleys to the east. Snow-capped mountains in the background, yaks grazing and the fresh mountain air are a memorable last sight.
At the junction Dingsamba Khola the weather is still fine though a cold wind has picked up. After lunch of dal baht, mist is gathering on the ridges and soon the atmosphere is like on the way up. The gray of the fog increases the colorful bushes and trees, but at the same time makes the rockslide areas look more sinister. I do stop often to look for garnet and do find some fine ones, but not nearly as large as the ones we were offered to buy by the villagers. The last part of the way stretches far longer than I remember, but in the early afternoon I arrive at camp where some of the porters already celebrate the reunion with those who stayed behind.
We go to the guideís house where the left-behind equipment was stored. His wife invites me for a cup of tea, and with the harsh but not unfriendly resolution brushes aside my excuse of ďnot feeling well, stomach sickĒ. A small fire is burning in the hearth and I sit down on the rugs along the window front . Our guide will be out of the house for another week since he agreed to guide us to Ghunsa. The Nango La which we intended to cross received a lot of snow and is blocked. To avoid walking all the way to Sekathum, he suggests using another pass. It is not on the map. Heíll be guiding us and also bringing some of his yaks for carrying loads. The plan is to go up to Lhonak and explore the ďhidden glacierĒ, and maybe climb a peak there. I have been to Lhonak two years earlier and would rather go up the Yangma valley. Jamie is fine with splitting the group, and organizes Ang Dami and two porters to come with me. We agree to meet one week later on Kambachen, and spend some days around Jannu north face base camp.
Iíve decided to go on my own to Yangma, the group was fun but going alone to the remote village is more tempting than going with the group to Lhonak. After a very late breakfast we start to sort out the gear and food. Tenba has spread out all the provisions and I feel like a kid in the candystore: I can pick what I want. Dal baht and potatoes are fine with me, I wouldnít need anything else except for some eggs for breakfast and a little soup, but Ang Dami is quite insistent that I also grab some of the luxury items like biscuits and muesli. In the end we need kerosene, kitchen utilities, food for a week for three, two tents, my duffel bag - it all adds up and we need two porters to carry all that.
I was worried that they might be a bit grumpy that they have to leave their friends for a few days, but everything seems to be fine with them. Itís almost noon when we start: Ang Dami as guide and cook, Gyurman as kitchen boy, and the Tamang porters Mangal and Mahankali.
On the way out of town I pass the school where kids are playing in the courtyard. The teacher has Tibetan features and probably comes from the area. Maybe itís due to her commitment that the school isnít closed Ė Maoists have come up and burned down the police and tax station but didnít do anything against the school. Just when the bell rings I see the porters are at the end of the village and I hurry to catch up with them.
The green river, yaks in the meadows and the red monastery are a fine last view before we reach the forest and Olungchungkola disappears. The trail is still under construction and we take the route through the bamboo forest where the porters have to be very careful not to slip. Before reaching the junction we follow a branch that climbs up and contours the hillside high above the river that come fromYangma, the Yangma khola. Cows roam in the forest unattended since there is no risk of them going astray. It is so steep that the only way is the narrow path weíre on, and every half hour we have to climb over trees that hinder the cows from running away. A thunderstorm is building up in the south; the humidity in combination with the strong sun makes it a strenuous walk. Whoever detected this route was an explorer in his own right: itís a zigzag trail up and down with some tricky bits in between that connect the easier part of the narrow trail in the forest.
In the early afternoon the crew asks if Iím hungry. Iím not and rather kept going to reach camp before the storm has reached us, but I assume the real questions was: ďWe are hungry, why donít we stop hereĒ. Leaving the trail we climb down to a little plateau over the raging river, a spectacular place to rest for an hour.
After lunch we pack up quickly to get as far as possible today since tomorrow would otherwise be another mission day. I sometimes wonder how the early explorers covered so much ground, regularly they achieve double-marches; of course they were tougher but maybe back then the trails were in better use and condition. Compared to the Olungchung valley this one seems much younger: the walls are steeper and very unstable, thereís hardly a long stretch without any major rockslide areas. The river has run in a narrow gorge so far, now it opens up a little and the walls are less steep. The sky has turned gray, it starts dripping and I happily consent to set up camp early. Between some boulders is some space for our tents, once in the sleeping bag Iím too lazy to get up for dinner but donít want to eat alone in the tent, so I get up and join the crew. Ang Dami has cleared their stuff and cooked in the tent, itís much more basic than the last few nights but very comfortable. As usual my promise that Iíll be fine with just dal baht is not believed by the cook. Ang Dami cooked twice, first sandwich for me, and then the regular staple diet for the porters and himself. The porters have known each other for a long time, and treat each other with less formality than the Sherpas. I guess in this combination these four have not worked together before. It just takes time to get to know each other. The crew waits till I have finished eating, since thereís not enough space in the tent so I quickly go to bed after dinner.
The tent stood a little uneven on the stony ground, once asleep it doesnít bother me and I enjoy eleven relaxing hours until the moment a yak trips over the tent string. Itís rather chilly and the sun will still take some time to rise over the ridges of the Sarphu range. The porters and Ang Dami were pretty cold in their tent.
We hurry and after a quick breakfast are on the trail early, trying to shake the cold off while walking through a pine and rhododendron forests. Apart from the trickling of tiny rivulets and the occasional fall of some leaves it is strangely quiet. Only when the sun has started to warm up, and steam is coming from the moss-covered trunks, does nature seem to wake up. When hearing the chirping of birds I realize that their absence largely created the eerie feeling. Tomtits with dark blue feathers and bigger red-bodied birds warm up in the branches. Ugly clearings in the forest are the first indication of humans, large trunks rot unused around though the deforestation cannot be blamed for the huge devastation caused by landslides. Entire hillsides have collapsed and boulders are reaching down into the river. Most of them look pretty fresh, I guess each monsoon season takes its toll. When the walls are less steep and the valley starts to open up the strange atmosphere of the morning is gone; through juniper bushes blinks the white snow of the Sarphu mountains. The range has been getting higher since this morning, the precipitous walls getting more and more snow. They culminate in fine peak of Sarphu II (or III?) whose summit looks like a finely chiseled figure against the dark blue sky.
I stop often to enjoy the great scenery. The (relatively) lightly laden porters are walking much faster than usual, so I often lose sight of them. Since the trail is difficult to detect itís with a bit of luck that I catch up with them before the trail gets more confusing. Small rivulets run over the shadowy path, and juniper trees grow between the dark boulders. This makes the walk up to the crest of the ancient moraine very pleasant. Between the dark green junipers shine the steep white flanks of the Sarphu. The moraine wall must have blocked a glacial lake a long time ago. More and more peaks gets revealed as we climb up. The bizarre snow figures of the Sarphu range stand out against the dark blue sky. [After having a closer look at Hookerís journal (back home) and the illustrations I realize that when he was there 1840, the moraine wall was largely intact http://www.gutenberg.net/cdproject/cd/etext04/hmjnc11h/chap10.html#page 232] The force of the water has burst through the stonewall and ripped it away in the middle. Now I know where these black boulders further in the valley came from. Iím very curious to see what to find after the pass, and I wonít be disappointed. It introduces completely different scenery. Instead of dense forests and wild creeks, the valley floor is wide and completely flat, the river now calmly meandering in its wide bed. Scrub grows on the gentle hillside that is dotted by black chisseled rocks that fell from the craggy ridges. It is quite windy and chilly at the lunch spot, but the sun is shining fiercely. Across the river, the glacier of Zedangchu crawls down in its steep bed. A yak herd is going north just under it. The fine summits rise high into the sky above. Watching scenes like these make trekking so enjoyable.
The walk in the wide riverbed is the easiest part of the entire trek so far. A little path leads through the pebbles and the strong wind is coming from the south Ė going the other way in the afternoon would be unpleasant.
The mountains grow not only in height and size, but also in the number of intricate ridges and snow formations. Drifts of powder snow are blown from the exposed ridges, what a difference to the flat piece of land weíre currently walking on. Suddenly the landscape changes when we climb over the remains of another ancient moraine. The river has now eaten itself into the ground and gnawed on its unstable walls. Though the weather has been fine for some days, thereís a little rock fall. The river is still digging its own way at the bottom of the glacier that has melted long time ago. On the other side of the now unfordable river lies the hamlet of Nup (Tibetan for ďwestĒ), the three houses are built in a classical Tibetan way with flat roof and large walls around them. All the other in the area have shingled roofs and wooden walls.
Another moraine wall blocks the view of the valley ahead over which towers a strange looking peak: a glacier covers the flat summit plateau and steep natural cairns stand on the ridge. After climbing a last small hill we see a large gray chorten that dominates the valley and looks like a guard of the entrance to it. A long maniwall precedes it. Most of the stones are so old that the mantras are barely visible anymore. Since there is no wood to cover the wall people of Yangma have cut out patches of grass and used them as roofs to protect the stones. From the chorten we can see the two dozen houses at the junction of two side valleys built on the slope above the flat ablation valley. A temple stands at the highest points and overlooks the houses. The terraces below the village are fields of potatoes and the stubbles from barley. The flat bottom is used for grazing.
I join Ang Dami who drops his loads and goes up to the village, trying to find potatoes in the village. Nobody seems to be around, but some children lead us to the house where people have gathered. After hitting my head on a low door my eyes get used to the darkness and enter the living room: the contours of man show against the light that comes from three small windows. It takes some time until I notice the women who sit near the fire and tend the pots. They drink Tibetan tea out of china cups. The men enjoy tongba from the wooden vessels. At first I take the gathering for a religious ceremony, some of the men have haircuts that remind me of nagpas (lay priests) but then I realize that itís just a very wild and unorthodox haircut. And the strange guttural noise comes from the stable below.
I was warned that Yangma is a poor and sad village. My first impression is that it is definitely poorer than Olungchungkola, the house are smaller and the school less robustly built. However, I did not see any sign of dejection or destitution. Considering that itís 800 meters higher than Olungchungkola and does not have any forest nearby and a pass that has become too difficult for trading, people seem to be doing fine. The children look quite healthy but are very shy.
We set up camp near the school where I also spend the rest of the afternoon. Once the sun has disappeared behind the mountains - early as usual - it is rather chilly already. The cold wind that has blown since noon now moves thick fog up. The nearby peaks are hidden. Further south where the mist has dissolved a range catches the golden rays of the setting sun.
The crews prefers to stay in the tent, and donít want to stay in one of the houses. After dinner, Tibetan soup with potatoes, vegetables and dough balls, Iím off to my own tent.
Dogs were barking the whole night, my earplugs froze and even after unfreezing them they didnít soften the noise. Eventually even they get tired and sleep until sunrise. I doze for a while, listening to the murmuring in the crewís tent and the noise from yaks that must be somewhere around the tent. The color of the sky undergoes constant changes as the sun rises. Suspecting that the range that forms the border in the northern valley will have a great color I hurry up the hill but arrive too late. The colors are still nice yet the magic moment when a single point of light appears on the summit and the valley lies in darkness is over. Tomorrow Iíll have to set the alarm clock. Right now the glaciers appear in a dark yellow and contrast with the black rock below and the blue sky above. I spend almost an hour on the hill overlooking the village. Nupchu looks nice in the light and once the sun reaches the village it turns to life. Fires are restarted in the houses, smoke comes out of the roofs, and yaks are driven to the grazing area or tethered to the ground and loaded.
I could probably spend a week here without getting bored, walking up all the side valleys. But I only have two days and be picky: one day for the valley to the north where Jamie walked up to a pass last year, and though I wonít be able to reach the pass thereís a lake worth visiting. On the way I pass the gompa, it is locked and nobody around has a key. Most men are away for work. The children and women are very shy.
On the plateau above are a few lhatos, stone piles with prayerflags that offer protection. The mani stones are covered by lichen and the scripts barely readable. Small trails lead out of the village to the grazing area. There must a lower trail along the river, I stick to the higher route which crosses the plateau where a dozen yaks feed on the open patches between the snow. A landslide marks the end of the grazing and since it is quite unstable there are only two options: cross at the very bottom or climb higher. Itís covered by shrubs and high grass but quite steep and hard to get into a rhythm. I have longed passed the landslide but continue to climb, I must be close to 5í000 meters on the ridge that is mostly free of snow. Yangma is not visible anymore, the Sarphu range dominates the view southwards, the fine summits that Iíve seen two days ago are just the icing on the cake: steep rock faces build the foundation with glacier in between and thin ridges lead higher to the white summits where wind has created fine figures. To the north is the range that forms the border, not very high but still unsurpassable for except one remote pass that is not used by locals (anymore?) and was crossed by foreigners just last year. At the bottom of the valley lies the slightly turquoise lake. Getting further than the lake it out of question, to the lake should be easy. But itís not. The north-facing slopes are covered by a thick layer of wet snow, traversing is tiring and tricky, preventing slips takes additional time. I sink in to my waist a few times, and the snow-covered rockslides are quite frequent if not wider than 10 meters. When I reach the valley floor my legs are tired and feet wet. Large boulders lie scattered around, between them there is either 3 inches of snow or 2 feet and thereís no way of finding how before stepping on it. Several creeks from the Nanggama lake in the east flow in and force me to do some detours. Finally the strong turquoise of the lake appears and Iím at the shore. Its waters stretch far to the north, the opposite shore is completely snowed in and a few small trees look out of it. The outflow is wide and without bridge impossible to cross, so I rest on the small boulder and have a snack. I hoped to see some animals or at least see spurs but the presence of yaks must have driven them into one of the really remote valleys. The views are nice but I donít stay very long, because I started very late and it has taken me three hours. Hoping on finding a trail further down I follow the creek whose banks are often free of snow. I find a small trail and eventually I climb up the moraine wall and am at camp 1 Ĺ hours later. The last few precious minutes of sunshine are wasted for washing and relaxing.
When the sun is about to set, the peaks in the south are again out of the mist and the soft pink summits appear for few minutes. Very soon after that it clears, after dinner the stars shine brightly and illuminate the mountains.
Itís just in the morning that I remember the commotion from night: I wake up horrified to yelling and screaming from the other tent, then somebody opens the tent and hear the stamping of footsteps and the howling. It wasnít a dream I realize much later. Two dogs sneaked into the tent, ate some of our food and even lied down to sleep there until much later one of the crew finally noticed them. Most of the meat has disappeared, but the crew only laughs about it. I give them money to compensate for the loss.
This will be as glorious a day as I could imagine, filled with everything that makes me go trekking over and over again.
I wake up before the alarm rings. The sky in the south is turning into a whitish light blue, while itís gray in the north. Itís high time to pack the camera, put on down jacket and look for a place to watch the sun hitting the mountains. A minute after having found a good spot the very top of Senup peak catches the rays. Itís not a particularly splendid peak but the soft reddish colors makes it stand out from everything else. As the lower parts get the orange color, the rest of the valley is still in darkness. Second Nobuk turns orange, and then the entire range is brightly lit. The ridges of the peaks to the east appear as thin orange lines that separate the white snow from the blue sky. After an hour a cold wind makes me crawl back into the sleeping bag. I doze off and ignore the first two calls for breakfast. Cheese omelet and tasty flat potato bread are a good reason to finally get up.
I laze around camp for the rest of the morning enjoying the warm sun, then ask for two bowls of hot water for a complete shower and then use the remaining water for laundry. My shoes have dried and at 11.00 Iím ready to start todayís walk towards the Chulima Himal. This sidevalley to the east looks interesting on the map, and the peaks I saw from above the village beg for closer inspection. Omni Kang Ri is a symmetrical peak with beautiful ridges and flutes. Maybe I can make it to its base camp.
More barley fields were constructed in the east, but they soon end and a chorten announces the end of the village. A gentle climbs starts along the creek. A mineral in the water has turned the rocks orange.
Two women are collecting the fallen leaves from the small bushes, an indication of how wisely resources have to be used here. An isolated hut and a long stone fence definitely mark the end of the villageís grazing ground. I wonder if the wall is keep yaks in, or predators out. Only a small trail winds itself through a field of large dark boulders for half an hour, followed by flat hollow 20 meters below. A cleft to the north goes to Syao Kang via the Phujang valley. The wide valley continues eastwards toward the Chulima Himal. Some miles ahead it narrows and turns from a dead moraine into a living glacier. A dilapidated fort overlooks this junction. Both the structure and building material indicate that this was not a regular house. Instead of small and few windows it had lots of small openings and on each side three large arrow slits. The lower part was built with stones, the upper with mud, but only two of the outer walls remained. Though on a smaller scale, it looks like the forts built in Tibet and Mustang some centuries ago by feudal kings as a check posts for trading. I have never seen or heard about forts in eastern Nepal, and the location is strange. If it was a local king he should have built it where the village is, if it was a trading post it should stand near the way to the pass to Tibet and not in this sidevalley. Large ancient mani walls are piled up around the fort, so it must have been an important route because I canít imagine that yak herders put up these walls on the way to the grazing areas. Maybe it was a monastery? I donít find anyone in the village who could explain it to me. Chandra Dasí report might mention something about this, but his book is too difficult to find.
I walk down to the flat and wide valley. As usual, my confidence in jumping the river vanishes as I get closer, in the end the width is larger than my jumping abilities. After some minutes I find a semi-natural bridge that spans the Phujang creek. A few yak tracks lead from the bridge to a settlement of six houses, each with a large stonewalled place in front. Nobody is there, this village is probably only inhabited in summer by yak herders. Endless trails yaks lead through hillside. The ground around the village looks nice and grassy, though after ten minutes itís gets more and more muddy and turns into a swamp after all. Finally I do what I should have done in the first place; climb up high on the slope to reach the yak trails. Once there and some landslides later the walk is easy, and the views simply stunning. Across the snow-covered valley numerous peaks are rising, most impressive Nupchu with a precipitous north face and little tributary ďhillsĒ whose steep icefalls and fine ridges lead to the summit. Dominating the view in the distance are the peaks of Tinjung and Dango Peak. The eye follows the gentle curves of the brown moraine, stops at the glacier that floats like a rough sea of ice around the two peaks, and then follows the delicate ridges to the pointed summits. They are superb peaks on their own with their steep snow crags running from a broad glacier to the top. What turns them into an extraordinary mountain is the additional hanging glacier that connects the two summits. The view evokes emotions of awe, but more lasting is a feeling of humbleness.
My goal is to reach the end of the valley and see Omni Kang Ri from closer, but a large rockslide lies ahead, fog is moving in and Iíve reached the turn around time of 14.00. Starting just after 11.00 wasnít a good idea but at least Iím clean and the laundry is done. The next time I turn around Dango is already disappearing behind clouds that are not going to clear this afternoon. Because the mountains are hidden I focus on the grassy hillside and notice a flock of crows that are chasing an eagle. Something else is moving on the slope, two large mammals. The first excitement dies quickly. Itís just two yaks. Some second later I notice two blue sheep 50 meters ahead of the yaks, fleeing from the yaks. I watch for awhile how elegantly the mountain goats tackle the rough terrain. In retrospect it was stupid to watch the blue sheep and not trying to find out why yaks running. Were the yaks fleeing from a predator?
Suddenly thereís a shadow over me Ė an eagle circles 20 meters above me three times and then drifts into the fog without making any noise. As I approach the junction below the summer settlement, a figure appears on the ridge. A large male blue sheep has lead its flock from the Syao valley up the hill. It watches down from the ridge for two minutes. Then a dozen blue sheep follow and graze near the top. Ten minutes later another flock joins them, some of the young goats staging mock-fights, while the others slowly move along the hillside.
The weather has not deteriorated yet, but when thick fog is blown up from Yangma I start to move more quickly downwards. Itís difficult to get lost, thereís the river on the one side and a mountain on the other, but it is a strange feeling to wander alone in thick fog in an unknown place at 5í000 meters. Itís a long way back and I have to admit I am relieved when I meet the two chubby-cheeked women who are still picking up fallen leaves. From the village I see the two forlorn tents which will offer comfort - and food - after a long and wonderful excursion.
Before dinner, we get a visit from the village. Three old women represent the local motherís group, and ask for donations. Usually thereís something ďin returnĒ, like a dance or excursion through the village, but they are so shy and feel uncomfortable that I give them a few hundred rupees without being asking many questions. They seem relieved and chat with the crew for a minute, before hurrying back to the village. Medicine and education is whatís needed, they say.. The teacher never even bothered to come up from Taplejung, so even before the Maoists came up the school was deserted. And thereís no healthcare center for days. Later Iím surprised to hear that the motherís group won an award. When plant poachers from Tibet were in the valley to illegally collect rare plant, they ďdressed up their husbands as Nepali policemenĒ, and were successful to drive the poachers away.
I did what I could in two days and am very satisfied, though moving camp up in the eastern valley would have been great if we had one more day. While dozing off, all the scenes from the day play in my head over and over. Iím grateful.
The sun takes longer to reach camp than we thought. Itís already nine when weíre ready to leave. I wanted to visit the gompa but somehow I didnít feel like asking for the key. I wonder how the once proud village of 300 houses was reduced to its current size. There could be plenty of reasons: Politically or geographically blocked passes, landslides that buried the village, erosion that swept away fields, people moving somewhere else (but where to?), sickness, declining economy Ė it could be anything.
The crew is walking fast, every time I stop for pictures I have to run to catch up. Clouds move in early, hiding glaciers and peaks. The fog makes the summits both interesting and threatening. We follow the same route as on the way up and meet several yak caravan on their way to the village. All of them are laden with wood. Unlike other villages, Yangma is both a winter and summer settlement and a lot of firewood is necessary to survive the harsh and long winter. In the old days they carried goods from foreign countries and traveled all the way to Darjeeling. It was never a major trade route, the main trail went from Kalimpong (Sikkim) to central Tibet and Lhasa, but nevertheless it was a lucrative branch.
We stop for lunch after the pass on the moraine near Jaritar. Fog has moved up since early morning and now itís getting increasingly cold. Sarphu is partly hidden by a stunning black mountains that seems to be made of only one black piece of rock, little patches of snow cling to its steep flanks. Once weíre into the forest it feels like in another world: green and yellow are the dominating colors, moss covers everything except the trail and the top of the trees. Itíd be idyllic except for the evidence of logging: huge trunks lie in the forest, its branches cut off Ė a morbid scene like a battlefield. Countless trees were logged this way, and though Iím in no position to criticize I feel sorry, also for the future generation of Yangma. There is no effort of reforestation, and every year the way to bring it to the village gets longer. Small firs grow on the inaccessible mountains, but deciduous trees are rare. In Ollungchung it didnít seem a big problem because there was much more forest, and we didnít walk through the logging areas. After the wonderful days higher up, todayís long walk and the weather are a letdown and the walk in the forest has not cheered me up either. Therefore Iím happy when we reach camp. A little ledge next to the trail is barely big enough for two tents, but again Ang Dami has found a nice spot between the rockslide areas. While washing in the river I find large pieces of garnet, not by smashing rocks but simply by having a closer look at the sand. It canít be much later than 18.00 when Iím in my tent. Three candles and a hot water bottle create tropical temperatures, a wonderful feeling after the rather cold nights in Yangma.
We start early and the crew has increased their speed once again. Thatís fine with me, getting to camp at lunchtime and having a free afternoon sounds nice. We quickly cover the distance that took us five hours on the way up. Since thereís no direct trail we have to hit the Olung trail and then head down to the start of the trail that will take us to Gyable. We walk past the three houses where we spent the night before Olungchung. Half an hour further down is the beginning of the ďhidden pass trailĒ, easy to find ensured us the guide. Itís used by yaks quite often to get barley and corn from Gyabla; in addition Jamie was going to mark it. We pass the burned down forest, follow the green Tamur for some minutes and then meet a caravan having lunch. Six Tibetan men and two women sit around a fire and have dal baht with yogurt and cheese. Ten yaks are tethered with their horn to stones. Ang Dami has already passed them when I ďremindĒ him to ask about the trail. They point up the flank and I realize weíve been lucky. We would have found the trail without their help.
The men drink tongba from wooden vessels. The eldest one had a little more than his share of the alcoholic drink, and his wife has taken control of the caravan. She sells us some fresh cheese that looks like a flat mozzarella and tastes similarly, though a little stronger. They donít seem to be in a hurry, after finishing their long and leisurely meals some of the men take their huge backpacks and start. The yaks are slowly being loaded, the old man smokes a self-made cigarette, has some more tongba and after an hour of packing they start the climb towards the pass. Itís just after three oíclock, my initially half serious face-wash in the cold Tamur turns into a complete wash, then I sit outside the tent and lie in the sun that shines through the clouds. When fog moves in I enjoy the effect it has on the scenery. The valley with its trees suddenly looks more like a Japanese painting than a Himalayan gorge.
I play some games with the crew after lunch. Theyíve gotten to know each other by now and get along very well. Iím also treated a little less formal than a week ago.
It was quite hot and I was sweating in my sleeping bag, during the pee breaks Iím concerned because even in the middle of the night the fog is still lingering in the valley. In the morning the sky is clear and we start early. If I hadnít seen the yaks climbing towards the pass I wouldnít believe they can get up such steep, stony and narrow trails. Itís a constant climb for an hour through thick forest and muddy grounds. At a hut we met the old women from yesterday, she watches the cattle that grazes on the plateau. From further down youíd never guess thereís such a large flat, tree free ground. The trail continues to climb, but instead of large trees itís mainly thick and high bamboo trees. Two hours after starting we rest at another hut. Nobody is here but somebody stayed here recently. Itís too early for lunch and we press on for another steep climb in a rhododendron forest on thick moss-carpeted ground. Weíre on a ridge now that gives the false impression of nearly having reached the top. I didnít realize the porters havenít had anything to eat yet, and the glucose-sweets I handed out donít really count as meals. We open a cereal box and eat it; itís quite tasty and gives energy Ė both physically and mentally.
Haze from the south is hiding the sun. At last weíve left the steepest part of the valley behind. The climb through the rhododendrons takes some time. Finally there are prayerflags on the crest, but itís not the pass. Instead of descending we traverse over a secluded valley with threes and bushes that looks very peaceful.
Though I wouldnít call it mutiny, the porters are making it very clear that they are hungry. Potential discussions are stopped by the fact that Ang Dami Ė knowingly? Ė has taken the lead and is nowhere to be seen. We take rest, share some snacks and after a short break we climb up higher. Half an hour later, after 5 hours, thereís a plateau at whose end prayerflags mark the way for tomorrow.
Weíre on the ridge between two deep valleys and views are extraordinary. Rhododendrons surround the small lake that reflects Jannu rising 7í710 m high into the cloudy sky. From this angle it looks as if the moutain leans to the left and will soon fall over. Against the clouds even Jannu is helpless and at last the very summit disappears behind the gray wall that surrounds us now. Ang Dami waits below the lake where there is ample space for camping. Locals stay here quite often and have built stone shelters.
The upper parts of Jannu remain hidden till the evening, but further south the lower parts of Kabru mark the border to Sikkim. Hopefully the fog will clear during the night.
I spend a bad night, caused by something bad I ate or drank. I wake up a few times feeling nauseous. The positive aspect is that while squatting outside I get to take some night pictures of Jannu, and to enjoy the stars. Eventually I fall asleep, and feel reasonably fine in the morning. My goal of waking up early and taking sunrise pictures without leaving the sleeping bag doesnít work because of bad tent positioning, so I get up in the cold morning.
The south spur of the chain rises as a black silhouette against the orange background while the lowland must already be in the sun. Jannu remains unimpressed for a long time, only the background changes from light blue to a whitish color. Little patches of pink rise above the Kabru ridge, the first sign that the sun will soon rise over the barrier. In a breach of the chain stands another separate mountain (maybe Rathong) which gets the sun on its southern flank and turns yellow. The silhouettes turn into figures when rock faces and glaciers start to become discernable. Finally Jannu acknowledges the new day with an orange summit, and then parts of its shoulder also change color. While the rest of the range comes to life, Jannuís face does not catch more light for a long time.
I skip breakfast, both to accommodate my stomach and to use the time for sightseeing and climb the three hills surrounding the camp. A moderately easy walk takes me up a grassy slope to the northwest from where I spot another peak rising behind Jannu, probably Kambachen (7í903 m). Most interesting is the view towards north, La Samba Danda is right in the front and the monastery of Olungchungkola clearly stands out from the ochre hillside. The wild creek menders peacefully Ė or so it seems Ė from Dingsamba camp to Olungchungkola. A long range of the partly snowed I mountains forms the end of picture, where the Tipta La pass lies is difficult to say. The Nurak Khola valley that is part of the Yangma valley is fully visible at first, but then the most interesting upper part is blocked by hills. Only one enormous mountain rises above the ridges, my guess is that itís Syao Kang.
Another viewpoint is the black hill north of the camp, probably half an hour climb. Mangal, the oldest porter, is just descending. If Kangchenjungaís main summit were visible Iíd climb up, but Jannu probably hides it and I should take it easy after the bad night.
The lake is partly frozen at its outflow, the porters have seen a maelstrom in the middle but it has disappeared when I get there. The plateau is barren, just below the pass rhododendrons grow. After ten minutes the trail peters out. Ang Dami walks up another ridge, an unlikely route. Phurwa, the other porter, looks a little further down into the gully and after watching for a minute, takes his load and starts descending. From a clearing in the dense forest we hear his call and follow him. Ang Dami soon catches up. From then on the trail is clear, it descends in the quickest possible way straight down the steep valley. Both valley walls look incredible steep, but the trail clings to the northern one and doesnít seem very precipitous when walking on it. We quickly lose altitude, and not even two hours after starting the wide fields and wooden houses of Gyabla appear below us. Framed by colorful trees and bushes. It seems much more lush and ďautmnierĒ than on the other side, but maybe thatís just because starring at the impenetrable snow summits for much of the morning. The first fields start high above the first house. A women is working on a potato field, and seems a little surprised to see us. Through thorny bushes we reach the first house that is idyllically framed by a tall fir tree, and the high ridges of Jannu.
Many trails lead through fields and bushes, there isnít an actual village, insteead just a collection of wooden houses that are spread over a large area.
Wheat is grown on the wide flat fields. Harvest is over already, and new sprouts are already growing. In winter snow falls knee-deep but most people stay in the village. ďWho else is gonna feed our dzoís?ď says an old man I ask about the seasons. He fled Tibet 30 years ago and settled here. The current situation in Nepal concerns him deeply, the villagers are being pressured both my Maoists and the government, and less tourists are coming. He doesnít want to be involved at all. Actually he doesnít even feel being Nepali. He received the citizenship because it makes life much easier than being a refugee. A few times he refers to the ďrongba dugchaĒ, the ďbad valley peopleĒ. Once more itís interesting to note that not the high passes form the border, rather itís the middle hills. If the government solution with ďNepalizationĒ through education is the right way to build a nation is debatable. The children of Gyabla go to school in Phele, three hours further north but today all the kids are around and some ask rather aggressively for pens and chocolate.
We get to the campsite at the end of the village in the early afternoon, just as some porters in familiar red-yellow suits arrive from Ghunsa. I follow them and meet Ram Kaji, a sirdar with whom I went to Kangchenjunga in spring 2 years ago. Heís with a group of Germans; one of them is very friendly. They started in Yamphudin, crossed a pass and went to Pangpema where they met the others from my group. Everybody knows weíre trying to climb Mera, even the 55 year old Tibetan refugee, but I assume all the remotely with government involved people have fled the area some time ago. The crew is friendly, offers juice and even lunch but I decline because I donít want to test my stomachís capabilities yet.
A local talks about the Maoistís up here, and the wildlife that includes red pandas, black panda (he probably refers to black bear) and other bears. After seeing a familiar face it takes a few moments until I realize itís our guide from Olungchungkola. They crossed safely in snow-free conditions, but something has happened to one yak. My Tibetan is not good enough to understand what really happened. He explains me that Jamie has left a note at the pass. We didnít see it and it hopefully didnít contain anything very important.
It clouds up quickly, and the large waterfall looks only half impressive when the clouds cover the mountains faces high above it.
A warm night, though the wind in the morning makes me skeptical. When I finally open the tent it is very cloudy already. We pack quickly and meet one of the porters who was with us. He came up to Olungchung, turned back to Suketar and found work for another group. Like on previous days we walk fast. Our speed impresses even the porters. Weíre flying up along the green-whitish river and hear them laugh ďbistari bistariĒ behind us (ďslowly, slowlyĒ in Nepali).
The vegetation seems unspoiled by humans. Large trees rise above the thick forest. Red maple leaves and yellow fir needles cover the ground. The water level during spring (melted snow) and summer (monsoon) must be incredibly high. The current has placed large boulders on top of huge boulders that stand in the middle of the river Ė 3 meters above the current water level.
The point where we cross under a boulder thatís squeezed between two rocks marks the entrance into a different world. The valley seemed dull compared to the new scenery: birds are chirping, the soft trickling of a creek comes from between green rhododendron bushes and some orange butterflies are carried away the warm wind. We reach the first fields and houses of Pholey. Harvest was finished and the houses are empty. Half an hour further up the roof of the monastery looks out of the forest, and weíre in the proper village and stop for lunch. Three groups of yaks come down, carrying potatoes from Ghunsa to Gyabla. The kids are asking for pens, though later I see that they donít just collect them for fun but really need them for school. I visit the school on the way to Ghunsa. Tibetan Children Village is an organization closely affiliated with the Tibetan government in exile. Three teachers cover English, Nepali and Tibetan and teach children from the entire area. Kids from Yangma, Olugchungkola, Ghunsa and Gyabla are staying at the school, those from remote areas stay in the hostel. When the school year will finish in two weeks they will go home and return in Mid-February when the school opens again. People in Yangma donít have a choice of school since theirs is without a teacher. But I couldnít find out why Olungchungkola sends some students to Phele, their local school looked fine. The
I pass another monastery, one that I havenít visited last time. Since Iím not in the mood of exploring today, I decide to postpone the visit.
After a cloudy morning the noon is hot and sunny, now mist moves in and makes the yellow larches stand out. An hour after leaving Pheley, the village of Tibetan refugees, I see the first houses of Ghunsa where Bhotias (Tibetans who came a long time ago) live. There seems to be some reservation between Yangma, Gyabla and Ghunsa, though if thatís more than the usual relationship and competition between neighbors is hard to tell.
The walk through the autumn forest is pleasant but short. I meet Tsering, the daughter of the guesthouse owner where I stayed during the last visit to the area. She smiles when she sees me, I also remember her well. Before entering the village, I pass the gompa without paying a visit and cross the old bridge. Mangal waits further down and brings me to the guesthouse of which there are quite a few. The couple who owns the lodge seem reasonably wealthy. The owner runs the local KCAP station. Their daughters Angmu and Tashi Dolma are 12 years old and fun, theyíre surprised at my Tibetan and bombard me with questions. After a hot shower I feel like on the first day of trekking. Then I do some laundry and relax in the beautiful living room. Itís big, has glass windows and the usual display of kitchen utensils. A bench with thick Tibetan carpets is on the window front, sadly clouds move in early and since the windows donít face the main through-faire there is little to see. Iím about to be splattered with yak meat that the ajala is cutting with a big knife. Apart from that, itís wonderful to sit here, listen to the crackling of the fire and enjoy a lazy afternoon. The atmosphere both from the people and their living room is very cozy.
A larger group has just arrived and stays at the lodge where I spent two nights some years ago. So the owners are quite busy. The mother looks as last time, maybe even younger, and offers me a seat and a cup of Tibetan butter tea with little butter and salt. Itís very tasty, and mild (at home I add both in large quantities and also milk, but the ingredients at home have not such a strong taste as here). And then comes the dish of boiled potatoes with a little salt and chili which taste delicious - and brings back memories from the last time when I arrived after a rush from Lhonak in 4 hours, just before the downpour, and very very hungry. Iíve had a leisurely walk this time, but the potatoes taste still fantastic.
Dinner in the living room is nice, though when some visitors from the other group arrive Ang Dami doesnít seem to feel very comfortable with them. After some time our crew gets more involved and included, but still itís a bit awkward and weíll have breakfast in the kitchen shack the next morning.
It was cold this night, and though the sun reaches the upper part of the valley quickly the village gets the sun last. The crew slept in the kitchen shack which looks not so warm, but they claim it was ok and better than the tent. We have a very quick breakfast and pack. The goal is to get as far as possible before clouds move in after noon.
This part of the valley gets a lot of frost and both the crew and I are eager to get moving. Thondrup, the owner of the local shop, was trying to get the lama to open the monastery across the river for me this morning, but the monk hasnít arrived by the time weíre ready to leave.
The forest after the village is enchanting, the small trail passes between gnarled trees that grow along the trail. Steep precipes on our right are covered by snow. Melting water has created wide river beds that cut through our route. Now they seem dry, but it is deceptive. I slip on a boulder that is covered by ice, it's a miracle that I manage to prevent a serious injury and "only" cut the top of my thumb. Pain is intense for the next two hours.
We cross the river and have lunch on a clearing in the last patch of forest. Different birds live in the bushes, and while waiting for lunch, it's interesting to see the variety. The river bed looks increasingly glacial, the trail climbs higher up and then we see the tip of Jannu. After crossing a wide landslide area we're literally just across one of the most stupendous mountain faces on earth. The reddish vertical wall rises above the glacier, seemingly endless it rises into the sky.
Another glacier is coming from north, a white range forms the horizon and the border. In the entrance of a western sidevalley lies the village of Kambachen. People from Ghunsa live here during the summer to watch yaks, and during autumn to run little shops. Therefore the houses are very simple, the wooden houses are not very attractive but the hospitality of the people make them comfortable. The owner hands me a note from Jamie: the amount of snow will make it difficult to attempt Mera peak, they went to Lhonak in hope for less snow. They'll be here tomorrow around noon, and we can discuss alternatives.
Kambachen is a cold place, and after sunset we quickly retreat into the sleeping bags.
Judging by the icicles in the tent, it was a cold night. I wake up early and canít get back to sleep, so I wait for the crew to wake up and the sun hit the tent. I finally get up and try to dry the clothes which have been wet for the last few days. After breakfast I stroll around the village for some minutes, but most houses are locked. Those locals which are still here are preparing to lock up for the winter and go down to Ghunsa and Gyabla. The fields are not looked after, I wonder if thatís because potatoes are grown and not much care is required.
I havenít been feeling well since I woke up, and by the time the first porters from the other group arrive from Lhonak, I feel stomach sick. I also feel the apathy that accompanies nausea. Iím not a very social person in that condition and instead of waiting for the group to arrive I go for a walk up the hill above the village. I refrain from eating for another day, and the uneasy feeling eventually disappears in the afternoon. Prayerflags mark the top of the hill. The views to the north bare the wide bed of a melted glacier. A huge white flat mountain forms the horizon. The long plateau could be part of Jongsong peak. In the southwest rise the spiky fluted peaks of Sarphu range. Despite being covered behind a hill, the most dominating feature is Jannu. Just the very top is visible, its red rock face is intimidating. The snow on the southwestenr ridge is a perfect dome, modeled evenly by wind from both sides.
Small dots move down from Lhonak, and when the slightly smaller dots (tourists without loads) arrive, I walk back down to Kambachen. My group arrived, after not seeing each other for a week and realize that it is nice to be around other trekkers, but that I donít miss them when Iím alone. Some people seem to be doing things and need to share them in order to really appreciate them. Iím content to enjoy it myself (though I do appreciate comments on my diaries and pictures on the web). Their journey from Olung to Lhonak worked out as planned. The only mishap was that the yak driver did not unload the yaks at a narrow spot along the river, and half the herd plunged into the water. One got seriously injured, and had to be killed. At Lhonak the amount of snow prevented them from reaching the hidden glacier. Instead they opted for a walk to Pangpema with great views of Kangchjungaís north face, and they got even better views when climbing a 6í000 m above the base camp.
The amount of snow in the Khumbukarna side valley is also rather discouraging. On the slopeís the snow has not melted yet, and higher up on Mera it could turn out to be critical. Instead of wasting more time on the north side, the majority wants to try the south side and maybe have an attempt at Bokton.
There are two options for me, either go the same way from Ghunsa to Suketar or stay with the group for some more days and take the route via Sinion La and Mirgin La. Iím undecided.
I leave out lunch, afterwards clouds move in and we start for Ghunsa. Jannu and to a lesser extend its tributaries seem to play with the clouds Ė once hiding and then defying them Ė the drifts of clouds just make them mightier. The sun shines for the rest of the day, but gets dimmed by clouds occasionally and the temperatures drop quickly. An icy cold wind blows near the moraine, but subsides further down. I try to get to Ghunsa quickly, and donít appreciate the scenery as much as I should, but in my defense I can say that Iíve walked that trail three times already. Most of the way down I imagine butter tea, potatoes and the comfort of a living room with a fire. Thatís exactly what is happening in Ghunsa in the afternoon. Fog makes it colder than usual, and we all get rooms inside the lodge instead of staying in the tent.
The cold makes the first few steps very clumsy, and the intangible sun that shines on the surrounding hills already just makes it seem even colder.
Last night I decided to walk out via the south route, and not the direct way. Ang Dami and two porters will join me. The others will walk towards Kangchenjunga south base camp, but I have to be back in Kathmandu one week earlier and wonít be able to join them. Again Iím grateful to Jamie, this flexibility is great.
On the way out of the village we pass the burned-down police station and the deserted school. After a short climb weíre on a ridge where the sun hits. After undressing we cross a small river and cross a wide grazing area where the porters have stopped for an early lunch. Then we head up in the forest, mainly rhododendrons grow in the intact forest where there is no trace of logging. The climb is quite steep and strenuous at first, and then gets gentler when it follows the ridge. Moss covers everything, thus reducing all sounds. The occasional fall of a leave seems very loud. I spot a few little black mice, not because I see them but thanks to the noise they make when running through the dead leaves. The atmosphere is incredible, and the light green of moss everywhere puts a green hazy layer of the scenery. The clinking sound of my walking sticks feels very intrusive and I stop using them.
When the forest gets more open, the fresh wind and sound of birds announce a different, less dreamy landscape: weíre above the forest and on the edge of the ridge. A little further ahead are prayerflags. The views from the boulders are spectacular. Far below, like from an eagle perspective, lies Pholey, up the valley are two fine peaks east of Jannu, to the right lies the range we will cross the next two days. I feel more out of breath than I should after three weeks of hiking, but Iím not concerned and enjoy the scenery.
The trail traverses the hillside whose dry yellow grass contrasts nicely with the blue sky and the dark rocks. Two creeks cut across the path, at the first one a bird hops away when I get within five feet, but lets me follow him for some time. After the second creek the trail climbs steeply up in a little gully, a hundred meter higher is the pass. To the right a dark rock peak leans out into the valley. Instead of going straight to the pass I climb up the decently wide saddle. The views are stunning; the Ghunsa Khola runs in endless cascades towards the low land where the hills follow each other and disappear in the haze. Across are the two passes to the Olungchungkola valley Ė Nango La is the higher one to the right, further left just above Gyabla is the one we took.
On the pass I meet a mother and her two daughters who carry loads. Iím wondering where they are going; the trail runs through a field of dark boulders and ends in a ďclearingĒ. A little stream meanders through the rock-free circle. After three solitary weeks Iím not prepared for the scene: three groups have put up camp and locals set up little shops. The locals come up during the tourist season from Ghunsa, and set up little teashops and shacks for kitchen crew. Most of our porters are from the same village, and to their surprise they meet the other half of the village up here. Theyíre also working as porters. Their reunion is celebrated, and I must admit Iím proud that we seem have the better half of the village: no gambling, smoking or drinking.
Their party does not last very long, or maybe Iím just too tired to realize.
The sun hits early and in nice temperatures we slowly gain altitude. Patches of snow become more frequent the higher we get, at the foot of the next pass they turn into a single snow field but the trail is free of snow. Most of the porters have put on their sunglasses, even the girls you usually donít like them at all. Despite the winterly surroundings and the altitude, itís hotter than the days before. The scenery is magnificent even before reaching the pass: the mountains of Yangma rise in the distance, just behind the barren ridge towers the upper part of Jannu. Itís an easy walk and after a short final climb weíre on Mirgin La, roughly 4í500 m high.
Itís hard to get moving again once you see the views: 60 km in the west rises Makalu, despite the big distance it is ridiculously high and huge. Clouds start to gather on the summit to its right: Mount Everest. The closest mountain is Jannu, for the first time the south-east face is not blocked by other mountains and the lower part is just as impressive as the top: a seemingly unclimbable buttress that is guarded by knife-edged ridges further down.
Weíve taken it easy to the pass, and remain there for almost an hour. Iím happy that pack-lunch is cancelled and that the kitchen crew has gone ahead and prepared lunch on a little plateau. The weather is brilliant, dal baht with views of Makalu - I couldnít wish for anything more. If I had any doubts about taking the long route, they have disappeared during the last two hours.
After lunch we traverse to an unnamed third pass, on whose other side we cross another gully that is free of snow but towards Sinelapche Bhanjyang (4í640 m) the snow rises again. Crossing two weeks earlier must have been a nightmare. The trail branches shortly after the pass, to the right it drops and goes directly to Anda Phedi. We continue straight and traverse black rock faces. For an hour only the fogged in peaks of the low Singali range distract the eye. Then, when the trail bends to the north all of a sudden another spectacular view opens up: the eye starts far down in the Yalung glacier and slowly wanders up, first to the symmetrical pyramid of Rathong, then the long ridge of the Kabru range with its four peaks of 7í300 m. To the left of it, a long steep ridge leads to a reddish rock face with three summits that sit on top: Kangchenjunga.
I wait for a long time at another unnamed pass that is marked by prayerflags and a lhatso. Iím completely stunned by the views. Most people will not have a chance to see the beauty in their lifetime that Iíve experienced in just the last three hours.
Straight below is a little green lake, the path goes down steeply and requires some care. According to the map this canít be the campsite. Luckily the map is wrong and we really do stay at this lovely spot: grass grows around the lake, the mountains reflect in the smooth surface of the cold water. A long time after us the porters arrive in small groups. We set up the tents along the shore, when the sun disappears behind the hill it gets chilly and the tent is the coziest place. The colors change as the sun is setting. At first the foreground is getting darker while the Kabru range has a perfect white. Then the snow changes to a yellow first, and soon afterwards glows in orange. This strongest color only lasts for a few minutes and is followed by the last tone of pinks before it also fades and the mountains retreat into darkness.
After Olungchungkola I get my second good-bye dinner: dal baht. My appreciation is further increased because it was organized by Nicola who does not like lentils at all. For dessert we get a cake with a note: ďcome back for next trekĒ. I will.
Trekking with this group was really enjoyable; everybody was nice and had the right mix between group-consciousness and independence. After watching the stars for some minutes, I crawl into my warm sleeping bag and doze off replaying the stunning scenes of today.
I wake up before sunrise and luckily get up instead of going back to sleep. Itís been a cloudy night, and I witness a fascinating sunrise: the sky has a very intense light blue color. The rising sun illuminates the clouds from below and turns them into a bright orange and yellow, the upper parts of them are dark gray. The mountains are black silhouettes, only the lake takes is an orange oval in the darkness. Clouds are drifting from the south to the northeast, blocking the sun from reaching the Kabru range. For some moments the east face of Rathong and the peaks of Kabru get the orange ray of the sun, then clouds prevent any further play of colors.
After I get back from a short walk the porters who slept under a big rock are warming up in the sun. Our group will split today, Iím going down to Suketar while the others head north for Bokton peak. Therefore packing takes a bit longer, but since both of us will have a short day it doesnít matter. Logistics for treks are not easy, and if it seems simple it is only because the sirdar has everything under control: who goes where with which loads, what can temporarily be left behind and estimating reserves are not an easy job.
I get some instructions from Jamie to prepare their return in a week, medical advice for Ang Dami whoís cut his finger the day before. We descend steeply and lose several hundred feet in little more than twenty minutes. Near a little plateau the trails splits. I take one final group picture with us tourists, Tenba (sirdar), Ang Dami and Gyurmen. I hoped Mangal would accompany us, he was shy in the beginning but has opened up and weíve had some talks in basic English. His serious face and dark eyes often light up and display a warm smile. Instead of him Lama will carry the loads, the strongest porter who is often walking far ahead on his own. Ang Dami is a very helpful and nice guy, though his English isnít that good it didnít prevent us (or me at least) from having a pleasant time in Yangma. And since he is also a very good cook, Iím very happy to have him for the rest of the trek. His wife is pregnant and heíll go straight from Suketar to his village. Gyurmen has had a bad throat and will also carry a load down. Even though he was very attentive and helpful during the entire trek Iíve never felt very comfortable with him. Iím not sure if heís friendly just for the sake of it or if he expects something in return. Ttwo months later I got a mail from him asking about money or getting to the west. My skepticism was right, but in a way itís understandable because there is a lack of opportunity and I donít blame him.
Rathongís southwest ridge rises in a straight line to the summit, further south are the side valleys that would take me directly to Sikkim. I wish itíd be possible to cross there, but only Indian expeditions get the permit to get in and out of Sikkim via the mountain passes, and even for them it's not easy. The early explorers faced a different problem: getting into Nepal was almost impossible, and Sikkim was open.
Another half hour later weíve reached the bottom of the valley, and the settlement of Tseram. Two houses were built for trekking groups who stay here before going up where weíve come from. Kangchenjunga is in clouds, but the range in front build an attractive horizon, dark green junipers and red bushes grows between the dry grazing area where some young yaks wander. We stop for an early lunch, I havenít burned many calories so far but the crew needs energy to carry the heavy loads to Anda Phedi. The trail follows the river, a small area between the river and the steep barren rock face is covered by forest, the left river shore climbs more gently. Firs at the bottom, rhododendrons on the higher slopes which make way to small bushes and at last snowfields. A warm wind from the south blows the lichen like prayerflags, and brings a strong smell of wood into the glacial valley. Weíre walking downhill gently, the snow on the mountains decreases and after not even two hours a single house appears in a clearing: Anda Phedi. It is locked, but from higher up the sound of an ax indicates that the owner has not locked up his lodge yet. We ask for potatoes, green vegetables and clean water. Whether itís the lack of food or the fact that itís still early, there is indecision: should we stay or go on. I donít mind an early stop since itís warm, finally the prospect of spending some hours on the river convinces me to stay, and we stick to the original itinerary.
I go for a wash in the river, a refreshing one but on the hot rocks itís relaxing to dry in the warm wind. When cold breezes start, it gets cold. Laying on the mattress outside the tent for an hour dozing is another highlight. The sun is setting but for once the temperatures donít drop suddenly to freezing point. The valley is in the dark already, but behind the fine silhouettes of fir trees the gigantic wall of Kabru glows in an orange light. Within minutes the hillsides turn blue, gray and black and the snow from yellow to orange to pink and finally into a strange white.
Ang Damiís soup is ready when I come back; due to lack of supplements (Papadum and popcorn went north with the group) he made a very tasty snack out of dough and fried the finger-sized pieces in oil. Iím really moved by his care. After dal baht I watch the brilliant colors in the sky for a while and enjoy the warm temperatures. To the south the hills are silhouettes against a dark blue sky, only the ridges are orange. Hopefully tomorrow evening will be as nice as today, weíre likely to camp on top of a hill tomorrow.
A late start when the sun hits our side of the valley makes is easy to start. Clouds are gathering in front of Kangchenjungaís south face already, blocking views of the summit. The colors in the valley are stunning; the moss is a bright green, the sky pure blue, the clouds white and the silhouettes of the forest black. Itís a nice walk, though often the trails are slippery and muddy. The fir trees give way to rhododendrons; somehow I get the impression that there was more variety of trees in the other valleys. Little creeks from higher up flow into the Simbuwa Khola whose bed becomes more narrow and forces the water to rush down steeply in channels. At Tortong we cross over a bridge and continue on the side that still lies in the shade, nevertheless it is quite hot already. The heat and humidity slows all of us down. At the foot of a large ascent we stop for lunch at a creek, the one for the next two hours. Dark green junipers and yellow maple leaves contrast nicely against the blue sky, I watch them dancing in the wind and relax.
The afternoon is strenuous, we all sweat more than on any other day. The constant climb is not very steep but continues for a long time. A huge landslide interrupts the green of the hills like a gray scar. The constant trickling of falling rocks and sand follows us as we cross Ė most of the sound is caused by ourselves, but thereís also the discomforting sound that comes from higher up. There are some narrow spots, and a gap needs to be crossed on two round wooden trunks.
As we get higher, fog drifts from one side of the valley to the other, I assume weíre close to camp (Bhanjyang means Ďsaddleí in Nepali). Then weíre out of the landslide and on a fifteen feet wide ridge, though itís not visible Ė too much fog - one can feel it. The landslide starts at the ridge itself. For some moments it clears and Jannu Ė once again Ė dominates the view but it reaches higher into the sky than before. When fog moves in itís most picturesque because the whole valley is filled, only the nearby trees and the very top of Jannu escape the gray veil. We set up camp on a little clearing, an open shack that serves as goat stable in summer is turned into the kitchen. Before dinner I set out to climb up the hill to the north. The trail slowly disappears in the undergrowth; I fight my way up for another half hour in hope of reaching the top and finding a spot that letís me see the mountains in the north. Eventually I turn around; Iíd probably have to climb a tree because the vegetation is too dense to see anything. Instead of straight going back to camp I stick to the right and climb up the hill above the camp. I should have tried that spot in the first place, but Iím lucky to see the fog dissolve for a moment and the snow on top of Jannu reflects the orange evening light.
Back at camp I see a bad example of Nepali culture: as soon as got there Lama started a fire, nearby was a pile of dry bamboo and he added that and threw a big trunk on top. Bamboo burns instantly, gives high flames and a loud crackling sound but this last only a minute and then itís all gone. Instead of collecting twigs and bigger branches which are lying in the forest to make the fire last, they continued to put bamboo on top. Now all the bamboo piles are gone, itís dark and cold and they huddle around the remains of the fire and are cold. ďKe garneĒ is a famous Nepali saying, that can be translated as ďwhat can you do?ď In moments like those I believe those two words to be Nepalís philosophy. And maybe thatís the only way to stay sane in a country ruled for decades by corrupt, ignorant and incompetent leaders. This slightly fatalistic approach certainly has its good sides, but sometimes I feel that it also hinders activities. Not that other nations would have done better at the fire: Germans would have just taken logs from the large stack 20 meters away. Swiss would have collected the nicest firewood you can imagine and after a long discussion decided that it wasnít really that cold to justify burning the wood yet.
It was a foggy night, but the mist dissolves in the morning and I do get to see sunrise on the Kangchenjunga range. I rush to the next stone and mount the tripod. Lama whoís just woken up looks at me a bit bewildered. Though more clouds move in, Iíll try to find a better spot to watch the sunrise and I tell the crew to postpone breakfast till Iím back. On the way to the ridge I disturb a surprising number of birds, most noticeable small ones with a nice song, and two large black ones with an even longer tail, one of them completely white, the other in a white zigzag pattern. A few minutes out of camp I climb the rhododendron forest up the landslide. At first only Jannu is visible, but from a little higher the connecting ridge between Jannu and Kambachen appears, and then the entire summit ridge with the south summit at the very right. A dramatic drop ends the massif in the east. Fog still comes over the ridge, but there are moments where the mountains are clear and only the trees disappear in the fog. To the west it is clear, two high mountains rise above the wooded ridge of Pasang Danda, probably the first two peaks of the Syamdo Kangri range.
After breakfast I come back to the same spot to get a last glimpse. Without clouds itís possible to guess the trail we took from Ghunsa. If I didnít know we really did take that trail I wouldnít believe there was one. The trail here is surprisingly wide and well built. Itís a quick drop down. Itís like a staircase descending; the construction and maintenance must be immense work. Clouds hide the forested hillside to the north, in the south are several valleys in which roofs shine in the sun and little terraces cover the unforested parts. Autumn colors are less widespread than in the west, the few yellow maples and red trees stand out clearly from the various greens of firs. Patches of white clouds built up high above us, little clouds of mist have collected in the hillside and wander north. On the way we meet to tourists. The first porter is more talkative and seems to know Ang Dami. Shortly afterwards I see a known face walking up: Bagman, with whom I trekked around Manaslu and to the north side of Kangchenjunga. Itís a nice surprise for both of us, after a 10 minute chat Ang Dami presses us to go on. Pictures, exchange of email addresses and weíre off. Bagman is the sirdar of the group; his English has improved a lot and also his self-confidence. Heís still very funny, but less jumpy and seems to have grown in the last three years which makes me happy.
We stop for an early lunch after two hours of downhill walking in Omjee. Since I donít carry any loads, Iím the only one who enjoys the warm weather. A dejected looking older man runs the campsite and opens the kitchen. His wife could be the reason for his unhappiness: sheís very brisk, yells at him and simply creates an atmosphere of misery. The lunch tastes good, but Iím happy to leave.
Across the Omjee river weíre in a jungle where the sun doesnít penetrate the crowns of the broad-leaved trees. Man-high fern covers the slopes. Rivulets trickle over dark green moss-covered boulders and disappear in the ground, coming to the surface a few meters further down. Unlike yesterday the air is filled with sounds from insects and birds. Half an hour after walking through the jungle we climb up a last hill and are on clearing. Warm wind dries the sweat while we enjoy the view. The air is heavy with rain. Haze letís us see only contours of the hills that seem terraced. A small trail goes down the steep hillside, we have to retrace our steps once because the trail ends abruptly at a landslide. Further up we can cross and pass an isolated ďhouseĒ, a very simple construction. Corn is laid out for drying, and three newly born calves are tied to the house. The fields are small and donít seem to get enough water. An old man lives here with his family. Itís a few hundred more meters down to the bottom of the valley where a large number of yellow terraces indicate a more lucrative place for agriculture.
We were warned about a Maoist stronghold and training camp near Yamphudin, and have taken the old high trail to avoid them. Now in the inhabited valleys it will not be possible to hide. Weíre a small group now and I donít have a receipt for a donation, since Jamie has given half of it to the other group and needs his half for the large remaining group. So I hope not to fall pray to unreasonable requests for money or worse.
The river has a slightly green color, yellow rice grows along its bank. Houses are picturesque, red and white colored with neat vegetable gardens and flowers surrounding them. In Yamphudin I donít feel comfortable at first, some morose looking men with Indian features walk around and donít greet me back. The school is still going on, a sign that the teachers are doing a good job, otherwise the Maoists would have driven them out. I find our tents in the backyard of a lodge, when Lama arrives half an hour later it starts to drizzle. The more the rain increases the more I enjoy lying in the tent with a good book and a chocolate bar. Despite the rain the others are out playing volleyball with the teachers. My impression of the village gets better, one of the morose man helps up putting the tent and loosens up a little. The girl from KCAP (Kangchenjunga Conversation Area Project) who checks the trekking permit is very nice and tells me about the village. People here are against the Maoists, and have managed not get hassled too much, though when the rebels do ďvisitĒ here thereís nothing they can do against it. A week ago the army came up from Suketar and killed one villager in his house higher up where some Maoists were staying. Whether he was a supporter or the Maoists forced him to shelter and feed them, whether he was killed in exchange of fire or coldly executed will probably never be known. [I am wrong, by coincidence I saw an article in the Nepali Times some months later about exactly that incident, see http://www.nepalnews.com.np/ntimes/issue173/headline.htm].
The village has quite a mixed population. Sherpas, Gurungs and Brahmins live here, without any hassles between them. The KCAP girl is also knowledgeable about the wildlife, in theory at least. She asks if I drink, and only when I decline I realize that this was actually an invitation into her brotherís house to drink Tongba. Instead a great dinner by Ang Dami finishes the day Ė baked potatoes, potato paddies, samosa and vegetables are a diverse selection. Iím just speechless when Ang Dami says heís sorry he couldnít make any sauce because there are no tomatoes available in the village. Iíve rarely felt alone during the week in Yangma or on the way down, and certainly during dinner I felt taken care of completely.
Before going to bed itís time for the medical check-up: changing Ang Damiís bandage and threatening once again not to get it wet. Giving Lama pills against pain in the knees (1í500 meters descent with 40 kg on his back is even felt by a strong porter) and making sure heís not eating all of them at once before dinner. Checking that Gyurmen still takes his throat medicine. After changing the bandage on my own thumb I close the medical station, zip up the tent and enjoy getting ready for bed without having to worry about down jackets or woolen socks.
A warm night, itís as if I suddenly realized that cold isnít an intrinsic part of life. The sun has risen over the ridges and turns the dark green leaves of cardamom into a bright light green. Little bridges cross the many creeks that water the fields. When the flanks become too steep, the forests ends and the trail climbs high up, offering views of the terraced fields and huts on the other side. Half of the team takes the wrong trail, but luckily notice their error and catch up an hour later.
It takes the better part of the morning until we reach the first house along the trail; a family with 4 children makes a living from the small paddies on the sheer flank. Lunch at Kong Khola is a welcome rest from the heat that has replaced the dampness of the foggy morning.
KCAP paid for the construction of a very nice trail on which we pass harvested terraces where rice ears were cut a month ago. The remaining fields are millet where women are cutting the grain with a sickle or small knives and throw it into baskets. Itís a slow work that must seem endless as you cut it off piece by piece, the remaining field always in front of you. The laughing and screaming of kids announces the large school of Mamangkhe, so far there is not a trace of the Maoists, they must have fled higher up when the army came, or maybe mingled with the villagers. Some of the schools, however, are still closed and red-painted slogans on their walls indicate a ďvisitĒ by the Maoists.
Our camp is on the next ridge, a climb takes us down to the river Khaksewa and a long and harder climb brings Ang Dami and me to Phumphedand, a hamlet on the ridge. The first woman we meet has fair skin and soft features, quite a contrast to the harsher faces of the mountains, but she is not friendly and does not even acknowledge us. The couple that sits in front the next house is also not talkative, and only opens their mouth when they realize they can offer us a campsite. Both their campsite and the village in general are not inviting, and Ang Dami thinks itís another hour to the next spot and we continue. This is a village of Chettris, after Brahmin the other high caste socially, though not necessarily economically because their closed social groups makes it more difficult to get opportunities. I donít want to judge unfairly, but after the friendliness and hospitality I experienced in the mountains the welcome in the low land is a bit disappointing.
The trail is chiseled in a steep ridge, with no village or campsite in sight for a long distance. The valley opens a little and we walk through fields of ripe millet. Gurung people that live here are friendly; sell us a 5 kg pumpkin for 50 cents and throw in some squash for free. Itís almost another hour through nice scenery until we reach a protruding ridge with half a dozen houses and a large campsite. Children come from the fields and watch us putting up tents. Theyíre not as curious or active as the ďmountainĒ children, but after a hint help eagerly putting up the tent. And they steal a cup. The next morning, the cup will re-appear, despite being poor the Nepali people have very high morale standards. Dusk is eminent, soon after Gyurmen arrives it gets dark. The trail was a little maze and I hope Lama has not strayed too far and Ang Dami will find him on the way back. Itís been a long day and his load was very heavy, half an hour later Ang Dami is back with some of the load, soon afterwards Lama throws the empty canister to the ground. Heís more tired than angry, and the touristy welcome of chia, biscuits and chocolate make him laugh.
The sun rises in fog, during breakfast it lifts and reveals one of the Kabru peaks, the low hills hidden in obscurity. Delaying an already late start, I wander round and down the terraces to enjoy the harvesting scenery where the sun shines into the yellow fields. The snow on the horizon comes into full view. Fully visible at the very left towers Jannu, only now the enormity is visible. From close it was impressive with its steepness, fine ridges, icefalls and cornices. From far away it is simply the tallest mountain whose sheer height leaves you speechless. The summits of Kangchenjunga itself form simply a nice background. The whole village, including those children who donít go to school (my estimation 50%) are involved in the harvest. In one of the larger paddies of rice half a dozen people and two bulls They cut the millet in the fields, spread before the bulls that trample on it, and throw the straw on a big pile. The grains collected. It could be a scene from anywhere in South Asia, I it werenít for the range of 7í000 m peaks that form the horizon.
The women want some medicine for their legs with lots of small infections (mosquito bites?), but if itís the same thing that one of our porters had it is not something that can be cured in simply a day with some cream.
The distance is short, the trail easy. It follows the hill, goes down to a creek and climbs up Ė past our original campsite in Kesewa Ė to a saddle. Terraces cover all the hillsides. During September the various green terraces and forms must look splendid, the empty terraces are a sad reminder how beautiful it would be with clear views two months earlier. The green millet fields fill the geometrical forms that define the landscape with color. We meet a morose high-caste woman on the way up and a Sherpani woman - I wonder how she feels about living here. There is a small Sherpa community around Suketar, but the prayerflags here are the first Iíve seen since Yamphedin. As I approach the saddle the clouds cover breaks for some minutes, and in the hazy distance rises Kabru over everything else. The sheer height of it is even more evident than from this morningís viewpoint.
Itís time for a wash and during my ten-minute shower under villageís tap I attract a large audience. Afterwards the sun breaks through. A perfect lazy trekking afternoon: lying outside while reading about explorers in the 19th century and their hardships, listening to Walkman and enjoying snacks.
Sadly the clouds donít life in the evening, on clear days this must be one of the most stunning views of Kangchenjunga.
Much later a large French group arrives, being Ďaroundí them is strange since theyíre the first foreigners Iíve meet in a week.
Harvesting noise wakes me early, after half an hour I go out and see Kangchenjunga southeast face in an orange light, not crystal clear because the nightís moisture still lies in the air. Kabru range is now clearly distinguishable as its own range, separated by the massif by a huge cleft. Its summits are clearly visible though still connected by a long almost horizontal ridge. Only the trees on the ridge stand out, the valley below is almost non-existent and only some higher hills display its contours. The black lines turn to slightly dark green shapes as the sun rises above, illuminating the sky above the ridge yellow then some puffy clods of mist white. When itís over the ridge, they valleys seem to turn from dark green to orange when the mist catches the rays. As the valley turns to life, the mountains seem to withdraw into the distance.
Ang Dami things itís best to skip todayís camp at Lali Kharka and move on to Suketar instead. Whether because of my flight and me or because weíre very short on kerosene and food I donít know. Going the extra three hours today is fine with me, and Lama also agrees. The kharka will probably not be such a great spot, and todayís sunrise a fitting good-bye.
Then all up again, a constant climb that doesnít feel as hard as it should Ė probably a combination of low altitude and the exercise of the last month. Neat houses and full fields look even nicer in the bright morning sun. Rice harvest is in its last stages; similar scenes like yesterday pass by. More Chettries and Brahmins live here, which Iím sorry to say doesnít help to increase the friendliness of the area. Even the children going to school are very reserved. Some of them have Indian features and light complexion, other look Sherpa or Gurung. At last weíve reached the crest and have lunch there. The sauni looks very Indian and just ignores me (which is preferable to hostility or fake friendliness). However, when I take out my map and point out Lali Kharka and the route it causes much excitement and exclamation. When meeting friendly people all the time, one tends to forget the hardships and problems the that people face every day.
A last climb takes us up to the campground high above all settlements where the foot of a mountain is revealed below the clouds. We press on trying to reach Suketar early. Itís a climb through lush forest on the south side of a hill, after a pass we are on the ridge to Suketar and can see Patibara on our right. Pilgrims are on their way to the shrine on top. Jamie and the others will probably return via that route, instead of following the valley they plan to stay on the ridges all the way to Suketar.
The last part of my journey is pathetic: on a 30-feet wide bulldozed dirt road we march to the airport that is visible at the end of the ridge.
In Suketar we settle in the same lodge where had lunch in the beginning. The owner is a Tibetan girl from Kalimpong, well educated and very friendly. The hotel will be open for another week, then she closes it for the winter and leaves with Jamieís group for Kathmandu.
The situation in the village is tense: three weeks ago the Maoists attacked the airport but were fought back by the army. In the evening shots from machine guns indicate the training. During the night the commandos of the soldier can be heard. More soldiers are dispatched to protect the telephone tower that was attacked a week ago.
A lazy and boring day, in the morning I go for a little hike: Makalu is slightly visible; Jannu and the mountains to the east form the horizon. I spend some time watching a colorful bird of pray. We play rumikub for the rest of the afternoon, I feel restless but the cold wind and lack of views make it hard to get moving. Iím surprised Ang Dami is still here, I thought he might leave as early as possible, but Jamie told him to stay until Iíve left. I enjoy the last meal, praying it will be my last one in Suketar: the exposed runway often makes it impossible to land and flights are cancelled. Dal baht and pumpkin pie are a fine meal.
Gunshots at nights make it hard to find a peaceful sleep. Every time I wake up and have a look outside, the fog is getting thicker. Will I get out tomorrow?
Waiting for a flight on a remote airstrip is suspense. Dense clouds cover the sky, the plane will leave Biretnagar only when it is guaranteed to be able to land. That's not the case for a long time. Finally a plane appears, but it's not mine.
An hour later my flight circles around the airstrip and finally lands. I'm relieved. It's too cloudy to enjoy marvelous views on the flight to Biretnagar, but I'm not complaining. The connecting flight to Kathmandu leaves a few minutes after I arrive in Biretnagar.
During the flight to Kathmandu I'm looking forward to the amenities of the capital: a hot shower and a soft bed.
Iím rather early, which has the advantage of getting a window-seat on the right side; something to fight for even after 4 previous flights to Delhi. The entire western Himalayan range passes by, from Manaslu to Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. Then the plane makes a left curve and the "Abode of Snow" disappears behind the right wing - a great good-bye.
For a picture version, go to http://www.myhimalayas.com/kangchenjunga_olungchungkola/