Many people are surprised about Nepal's cultural and scenic diversity. Not only does it feature the highest mountain range on earth, the foothills and lowlands are equally beautiful.
Finding a route that lets you experience both of these worlds without meeting too many tourists can be difficult. The Manaslu area in Central Nepal was declared a restricted area. Trekking agencies do not promote the trek and individual trekkers are not allowed to go there.
We start north of Gorkha and follow the Buri Gandaki upstream along lush rice fields and pass through small Gurung villages. Rice terraces and yellow rapeseed fields cover the hillsides and wide valleys. Dense forests grow in the deep gorge along the river. Instead of following the standard route to Nupri, we take the narrow exposed trail that goes to Tsum. The valley stretches far into Tibetan territory and offers stunning mountain views.
The Ganesh range and Shringi Himal dominate the scenery with their size, though the Buddhist villages with their great stone carvings, chortens and paintings are equally beautiful. During the tough traverse back to the main trail the mountain scenery becomes even more impressive. The gorge slowly changes into an open valley and settlements become larger and more numerous. The Tibetan villages are surrounded by wide golden barley fields where people are harvesting.
From Lho we have the most stunning views of Manaslu. Full-moon illuminates the pyramid-shaped mountain at night, during sunrise the view of the world's 8th-highest mountain are terrific. Larkya La is the highest point during the trek, 5'220 meters high. It is not only the passage between the two valleys to the east and west, but also stands between the Himalayan range and the Tibetan plateau.
When we join the popular Annapurna Circuit we take the high trail and enjoy the atmosphere in villages and the enchanting scenery. The barren Manang valley features pleasant pine forests are contrasted by the huge peaks of the Annapurna range.
After three weeks of trekking, we attempt to climb Chulu Far East, one of the
'simple' 6'000 meter peaks that can be climbed with limited bureaucracy. Bad
weather and cold temperatures turn the climb into a real challenge. Our effort
is rewarded as everbody reaches the summit and gets down safely. The great views
during the flight from Hongde to Pokhara evoke memories of the last four weeks -
and I wish I were on my next trek already.
A long drive to the starting point of the trek requires an early breakfast. Getting up at 600 will hopefully be easier after two days of trekking. It takes some time to sort the gear out, but then we are ready to "fight" our way out of the city that has become quite busy by now. Driving a large jeep makes it a lot easier since the pedestrians, motorcycles and small taxis simply have to give in because they are smaller. I'm in the car with our guide Jamie and the couple from England that arrived yesterday afternoon. Lizzy and John are from Nottingham and seem really, really nice. I got I touch with Jamie last year because I needed help for my trekking from Dolpo to Kagbeni. Despite the fact that he knew he could not run it he was helping with precious information and found a reliable agency (he probably spent more time for a non-client than other companies do for their own clients). His knowledge and experience is immense, but he does not brag about it. I met him last year, he seemed a great guy to trek with, his small company offers high-quality services at very reasonable prices (see http://www.project-himalaya.com). Tom from Texas (a Nepal-addict like me though his focus seems to be more on scenery than culture), Tracey (a teacher from Canada just starting her three-months-tour around Asia), Dana and Dagmar share the other jeep. A liaison officer will be with us in the restricted area and arrive from Kathmandu tomorrow and catch up with us then. Most of the crew will already be waiting at the campsite.
One popular starting point of the Manaslu Circuit is in Gorkha, an old town that played a dominant role in the Shah dynasty and thus in the history of Nepal. The stunning palace overlooks the village, mountains in the north rise above terraced fields. I am a little disappointed at first that we will set off from Arughat instead - until I hear that this shortcut will give us two more days in the highcountry. Supposedly Maoist activities have spread from the west of Nepal further towards the capital, but apart from the area around Gorkha no incidents were reported so far. Tourists are not targeted, and the few robberies of tourists might not even have been committed by Maoists but just by ordinary criminals. But starting further north will definitely be safer for the crew the liaison officer and us.
Most of the rice in the Kathmandu valley has already been harvested. I expected to spend some time walking through lush rice paddies, but gave up the hope after spotting only brown terraces from the airplane two days earlier. As we drive westwards and get up to a pass leaving the wide, more and more green and yellow fields appear on the hillsides. Despite the haze that hides the mountain ranges, it is a very scenic drive. A well-paved road follows the Trisuli river until we reach a shabby town where we stop for some snacks and tea. There we cross the river and drive towards the mountains. Though there are plans to pave all the roads to the district headquarters, this road will probably be as bumpy in ten years as it is now. But it doesn't really matter to us because in a jeep the drive is very pleasant.
The scenery becomes even more idyllic as we leave the main road. On the flanks of forested hills grows rice in green terraces. Yellow rapeseed and mustard fields, red clay earth, white clouds and blue sky add to the great play of colors. Settlements are spread over the hillsides, its houses are small dots of red and white in lush vegetation. After crossing some foothills and valleys a wide plain appears in front of us. The road descends to the Ankhu Khola and ends there. These 'end-road-villages' can be rather depressing with their air of hopelessness, luckily the people in Karkhetigaon are friendly and not intrusive. We have lunch in a nearby teastall where a woman cooked Dal Baht, the regular Nepali meal of rice and lentils, and some vegetables. After this simple but very tasty lunch we set out for a short walk to the campsite. The porters who were supposed to come with us were hired by a French group yesterday, luckily some local women agree to carry our bags for half a day. Their loads do not look much smaller than the men's, but it does not seem too heavy and they have a good time. Their laughing and chattering does not stop even as it goes steeply uphill after crossing the Ankhu Khola on a small bridge.
The idea of other people carrying your stuff sounds appalling to many Westerners, but in a country with an official unemployment rate of 50% it is a decent job. Provided - of course - that the porters are treated with resspect by tourists and guides, that the loads are not too heavy, that the pay is reasonable, that the porters get the necessary equipment higher up, that they are insured against injury or worse. Their wages are ridiculously low (about $3 day and they have to bring their own food), though together with tips it does give people a good source of income. They speak little English, but it is easy to let them know how much you appreciate their work and the assistance of a sherpa doing translating lessens the distance between 'crew' and 'tourist'.
I have not traveled in the lowlands for some years and almost forgot how lovely it is. The subtle changes of colour and contrast (various tones of green on each terrace) are relaxing to eye and mind, especially after three days in crazy Thamel. We climb up through rice fields and forests and reach a plateau where farmland is abundant and fields of grain, millet, rapeseed and mustard cover the area as far as the eye can see. A few cows and waterbuffalos are kept in the villages through which we pass largely unnoticed. The afternoon sun and the smells remind me of the Mediterranean, the absence of steep valleys makes you forget even more than you stand on the foothills of the highest mountains on earth. The clouds that were building up since noon dissolve as we reach the end of the plateau, and two snow-covered summits appear on the horizon. They are probably Shringi Himal and a peak from the Ganesh range. When the sun sets behind the hills, the sky is turning from a light pink to a darker blue, the green rice fields at the bottom of the valley are fading in the dusk. This was a perfect first day!
By the time we get down to the river and cross it on our first suspension bridge, it is dark. We will stay in one of the many guesthouses in Arughat - a nice luxury considering the four weeks of tents and foam mattress ahead of us.
It is the last days of Dawali, a very important Hindu festival; kids are going from house to house performing songs and collecting gifts. Thanks to my cherished earplugs I fall asleep after awhile, but wake up all of a sudden in the middle of the night when something big hits my face. After the first surprise I turn on the flashlight, expecting to find a bat or a lizard on my pillow. Instead it is 'only' a huge grasshopper that is impossible to get out of the room. So I go back to sleep - trying to ignore the splash-splash sound of the locust hitting the wall every few minutes - expecting it to land on my fall on me after every crash. What is waking me up later is not the grasshopper itself, but Tracey's yelling as it lands on her head. Now it really is time to hunt down the insect and after some minutes we throw it out of the window. Relaxing sleep rewards the big hunt.
I am excited about our first real trekking day, and relieved that my knee is not causing any problems. One month ago it was hurting so bad that I could barely walk, and the same pain came back all of a sudden two weeks later. Food is always plentiful and nourishing, especially lunch and dinner. Breakfast is my least favorite meal of the day, relatively speaking: you cannot complain about porridge, toast, eggs, hot chocolate and tea.
We leave the village on a small trail leading to the north. The fog is burning off soon afterwards, revealing bright green and yellow fields across the river. The mist creates a sleepy morning atmosphere, when it starts to dissipate I also start to feel like being wide awake. At first the terraces on our side are not maintained anymore and used as grazing grounds for cows instead. Then it becomes a pleasant walk amidst the yellow fields in warm sunshine, with the wide river below and white summits far ahead. I did not expect to see any mountains for a few days, the snow-capped peaks in the background are a nice preview of the days to come. Huge spiders are hanging in webs that go from one tree to another, cicadas are chirping and the variety of butterflies seems endless. The trail is in much better condition than I expected and this makes fast walking easy. At times we walk high above the river, then right through wide fields further down.
Arughat is the largest village on the trek, from now on we will pass smaller settlements, often consisting of only a few clustered houses . In the lower hills the houses are all built in more variety than in the high country, but still they follow the same principles. They are two stories high with a sloping hay or wooden roof, the walls are white washed and partly painted orange. The orange color is made of cow dung and red clay and applied regularly. Often large banana trees or bamboo surround the house, giving welcome shade on hot days. A small stable for cows or goats can be found a few meters away from the living quarters. And I solve the mystery of the regular 'tump-tump' noises from yesterday night: it came a mill with a foot pedal. It lifts up a cone end that falls on a stone with slightly wider hole and grinds the rice in it. When baked the flour makes for tasty bread.
Gurungs are one of the larger ethnic groups in Nepal. They make a living as farmers and shepherds in the middle hills. Their native language is very different from Nepali and bears scant similarities with Tibetan words, but not enough so I could communicate. Culturally they are influenced by Hindu as well as Buddhist elements. It might be prejudice to blame it on the Hindu influence, but in the villages many men often sit around doing nothing while the women do much of the work at home and in the fields. The older kids take care of their siblings. Most of them are playing in the villages, since it is Saturday and they don't have work at this time of the year.
Two hours after leaving Arughat we cross a wooden bridge and reach Arket, a larger village. I do not like these towns too much; often they have a weird atmosphere because the mixture of tradition and modern times seems very shrill. After a long lunch we walk for another two hours until we reach the camp. The valley has become narrower and the fields are more terraced on the steeper hillsides. Since there is less cultivatable land, the number of houses is decreasing. On a small flat area between river and gorge are a few wooden buildings, the village Soti Khola. I am far ahead and would have walked on if a kid had not stopped me and told me that this is the campsite. I first suspect that he just wants to sell me a Coke, but the soccer game on the nearby field is like a command to stop. It is a lot of fun to play with a dozen of the kids. After running around in hiking boots for an hour my teams leaves the stadium as winners. Hopefully they learned that it is not the team running after the ball that wins, but the team that plays lots of clever passes instead. I give a small donation for a new soccer ball when they ask for it, since this does not fall under 'begging'.
A long time afterwards the porters arrive, just as it got dark. The trail did not strike me as difficult and it was only a few hour of walking. This leaves me wondering how they will manage the longer distances in the coming days.
At home I rarely spend much time outdoors and never camp out. Therefore the first night in the tent is always strange and I do not sleep very well. The warm temperatures make it even more difficult, it is hard not to sweat or to be cold, and the noisy insects are too loud for my earplugs.
Beautiful birds' twitter slowly wakes me, but the rooster spoils it all and I am fully awake before sunrise. Half an hour later morning tea is served in the tent, a seemingly colonial ritual but anyone who has been trekking will probably agree that it is too pleasant to abandon it.
Clouds are moving in from the south, making the walking less sweaty than yesterday as we continue to follow the river upstream. I don't mind the clouds at all, in a week we will see all the mountains very close and the fog in the rice terraces creates a nice atmosphere. The steep hills are completely terraced, yet the number of houses is getting smaller and smaller. Most houses are built high on the ridge above the fields that stretch over the entire hillside down to the river. Large waterfalls are numerous on the steep parts of the valley. I have not seen any bridges for the whole morning; the only way to cross the wild Buri Gandaki is a long steel cable with a wooden cart. A group of people is waiting for a seat, it is fun to watch them get into the small cart and get out on the other side. And it does make me appreciate the solid bridges we will encounter during the whole trek.
Usually we walk high above the gray river on decent trails, only some spots are exposed and you can see and hear the river roar a hundred feet almost straight below you. As we get out of the forest, millet fields take over rice paddies, some weeks ago maize was grown and now hangs from the roofs of many houses for drying. It is still Dawali festival and today is the day where flowers are given as presents. It feels really nice to 'get decorated' with flowers as we walk through the villages - often a village is just a group of two or three houses now since the steeper valley does not allow for larger settlements or fields. We stop in Sunigar for lunch where people are really friendly. I suppose that has to do with general good feelings at festivals and also with the fact that the number of (stupid) tourists is relatively small.
Dawali lasts for several days and every day has its own meaning and symbols. On the first four days various animals (starting with crows, then dogs, cows and bullocks) are honored. On the third day people are putting up many candles in their house so the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, visits them. On the fifth day brothers and sisters meet, put Tikas on each other's forehead and exchange small gifts.
The people of the dozen houses have gathered in the town's center, the men are playing cards while the women are doing their hair (braiding each other's hair and looking for lice), the kids are singing and dancing. It is a really nice place to sit and watch them.
At Labubesi the path splits into a winter and summer trail. Now that monsoon is over, the winter trail along the river is usually the easier option. The riverbed at this spot is almost as wide as the Kali Gandaki and also consists of large white pebbles, but it carries much more sand and sediments. There must have been a sudden rise in the water level, for large parts of the hillside have been washed away. After a short walk on the sandy riverbank the trail climbs up and clings to steep rock faces. The forest is home to many different butterflies and birds, most noticeable are small birds with bright yellow plumage. I am not particularly interested in these animals, but they make for an interesting change when walking for days and days. We have passed many waterfalls since yesterday, now the most spectacular is across the river with water falling down hundreds of feet over two or three steps.
After some more bends we spot a few stone houses near the river. At the first house we meet a group of travelers who look almost as out of place as we tourists do. They are Tibetans from Samdo, easy to recognize from their completely different facial features. Also their clothes and jewelry set them apart from the people we have met so far. After an interesting conversation about conditions near Larkya La they continue their trip to Gorkha.
It is considerably cooler than a day ago, and I'm happy to sit in the warm kitchen and to get to know the members our kitchen crew. During the day they are either behind cleaning up the campsite, or ahead preparing the next meal. Somehow the kitchen guys always seem more careless and less reserved than the Sherpas, a phenomena that is also true here. Since I am not very outgoing either at first, I really like their way of doing things and usually have a great time with all of them after some days. The porters have not arrived yet, so Jamie and the Sherpas go back looking for them. Hopefully nothing happened to them, walking in the dark on the narrow trails is not free of risks. Luckily they are only far behind and too afraid to go on in the dark. Our tents and bags arrive after dinner, and I sleep much better than last night.
It is a fine day and already quite hot by the time we set off. Most of the porters have arrived by now, three porters with a reputation of being fast carry our bags.
A huge washout at the village's edge has destroyed the school and some other houses two summers ago. There are about 200 glacial lakes in the Himalayas that could break any time, the larger ones are being watched but it is impossible to monitor all of them, let alone take appropriate action. We walk across the wide dried out riverbed of the Machu Khola and cross the small creek on a bridge.
Now that the gorge becomes more narrow and steeper it finally feels like being in the Himalayas and you can really see the powerful collision of the two tectonic plates. For a short while two white summits rise high above us, but soon the valley walls are too steep to see anything from the bottom of it. In small puddles near the river are tadpoles and further up is fresh spawn. Two days further down I noticed a large number of small frogs, maybe the difference in temperature is the reason for the different stages of development, maybe it is just a coincidence. The scenery certainly looks less hospitable now than in the beginning.
Though we did gain quite some altitude at times, we usually lost it the same day because the trail is not level and runs both high above the river and just along its bank. Therefore we are still at 1'000 m, so it is not arid at all but the change of landscape is quite dramatic nevertheless. The large fields have disappeared and given way to cactuses and small trees that cling to the sheer rock faces on both sides of the river. Terraces are not as common as two days ago, and they are much steeper and reaching to the cliff of the vertical gorge. Harvesting must be incredible difficult since no village can be seen anywhere, just getting to the fields requires a long walk. Buckwheat, millet and corn are grown instead of rice; small numbers of goats and cows are driven to the few grazing areas.
The noisy chirping of insects makes the warm temperatures seem even hotter, but in the shade it very pleasant. I expected colder weather in November, but higher up it will probably be freezing. After two hours we reach the campsite in Tatopani ('hot water'), a few houses are built one of the few wider spots in the valley. Ten years ago the hot springs were just running down over rocks, then the Village Development Committee (VDC) 'gave' the springs to a woman whose husband had died. She takes care of the pool and shower. Half of the money goes to the VDC, the other half is hers and I assume that together with the income from the shop she is enjoying a reasonable pension.
The place has nothing to offer except for the springs, but the hot water makes it a perfect place to stay. And the short day gives the porters time to catch up, they are still carrying heavy loads and the trail was certainly more difficult than yesterday. Our sirdar Bharat took the upper trail trying to find more porters in the surrounding villages. I hope he is successful otherwise we will be slowed down - which did not bother me so far, in fact I like easy days at first to get in shape - and we might lose some days.
The pool is not filled with warm water and the small pipe will take forever, so we take showers instead. The water is really hot (in fact hotter than in most of Kathmandu's hotels). I fully enjoy the luxury while having visions about standing in a glacial creek in a few days, and feel like never leaving the shower. But after washing and shaving twice there is no excuse not to go back to camp. At the end of the 4th day I feel as clean as I started.
After a good night's sleep I wake up as usually just before morning tea. Because the festival season is now over, Bharat found more villagers willing to work as porters - and I think he replaced the more lazy ones with others. We pack early so they can leave while we are having breakfast and get to camp at a reasonable time. It takes some days to get into the routine of packing up in the morning, now we are faster and also the loads do not have to be distributed again each day. The porters usually start without a breakfast and walk for two hours in their own pace, taking short breaks every 30 minutes. Around 10 o'clock they cook their own dal baat and continue to the camp where they have dal baat again for dinner.
We usually walk for three hours in the morning, the kitchen crew sometimes passes us and starts preparing lunch when they get to a pleasant spot. On difficult days we have a pack-lunch, but usually they cook a fully-fledged meal. Afterwards they cook dal baht for themselves, I often skip regular lunch and have lots of their delicious lentils and rice with some chilli. After dessert we set off for another two or three hours in the afternoon while the kitchen crew is packing up and following us. At camp we often enjoy hot chocolate and biscuits for a snack, two hours later soup and dinner are ready. It is as luxurious as it sounds. Working as a kitchen boy is probably the hardest job on the trek, you have to get up early to prepare breakfast, then hurry to get lunch ready, then walk fast to the camp site to fix dinner - and fetching water and cleaning dishes and carrying a large basket full of the kitchen equipment and serving tourists and being nice and friendly.
Their wages are not much higher than a porters', but they get free food and the experience increases chances of becoming cook or sherpa.
Another day, another scenery: farm and moss grow on the trees, the forest gets denser and the ground is wet and muddy. From a bridge across the wild Buri Gandaki we watch a group of brown monkeys. Entire families sit on the nearby trees; sometimes they jump from high up to another tree and grab some branches that swing down precariously close to the ground from all the weight, and then swing up again. Near the riverbank is another monkey that looks totally different; its black face long white hair on the rest of the head makes Langurs look like they're wearing helmets.
We slowly climb up from the river while the valley is still in shade. One hour later a steep rock face just ahead is brightly lit by the morning sun which turns out all the different tones of red, green and yellow on the steep rock face. The thick forest only covers the valley floor, terraces cover the rest of the hill. A village is lying at the foot of the hill, the blue smoke coming from the roofs gives it a sleepy atmosphere. Just before entering Dobat a ghost trap lies on the trail. Though it is not a purely Buddhist custom, one often finds it in areas where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced and mixed with old local tradition.
After crossing a creek on a long suspension bridge the main valley becomes even narrower. The trail goes up and down constantly but stones plates make for easy walking and useful exercise. From a grassy plateau it is only a few more minutes to Yaraphant, a cluster of three houses above the broad riverbed. The basin looks fascinating from high up. The wide valley cannot be used for agriculture, because most of it has been washed away and is covered by gray pebbles. The sidevalley towards Ganesh Himal would be worth exploring, but we do not have the time.
I saw locals taking the winter trail along the riverbank, therefore I am also heading there after lunch. The Yara Khola proves too wide to jump across, so I walk to the suspension bridge whose foundation is solid but many planks are broken or missing completely. The uncomfortable feeling when crossing it is rewarded by great views from the upper trail towards the south. High cliffs rise on the left and right, the river flows through a narrow fissure in a ridge straight ahead. Half an hour further up we cross a bridge where the water roars through a narrow canyon, then the river widens again. Walking never gets dull in such a landscape!
Shortly before Jagat the trail resembles a freeway, it is six feet wide and neatly covered with stone plates. The village is so clean that it feels almost out of place. Solid stone houses are built close to each other, its front walls nicely painted. Though we have still some days to go before reaching the Tibetan communities, the people here are also Buddhist and a large chorten with carved prayers stands at the end of the village. We relax in a nice garden at the town's entrance and put up the tents. This was certainly not a very long day either, but since the porters arrive almost at the same time as we do, we might be able to walk longer days from now on.
The Manaslu Conservation Area starts here, and the village seems to be the last outpost of the Kathmandu administration. Half a dozen men from the low land are working in the post office, police checkpost and the school. Bypassing the police post is almost impossible because of the steep cliffs, and every year a few Tibetan refugees die on their way to Kathmandu when they attempt to sneak around checkposts. Allegedly the Chinese border guards pay good money to the Nepali policemen for every refugee that is handed back to them (especially these days after the flight of several prominent religious figures). I met a Western scholar who declared the two refugees he had met in Tsum as 'assistants' and brought them safely down to Gorkha. Some of them try to stay in Boudnath, but most are continuing to Dharamsala, the seat of the exile government, to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
A howling dog wakes me up in the middle of the night; it sounds as if it is about to come into my tent. Luckily it is not as persistent as dogs in Kathmandu and I can go back to sleep after ten minutes. We have decided to use some of our days reserved for exploring for going up the Tsum valley. I did not realize the valley was so easy to reach from the Manaslu Circuit, and the sudden opportunity to follow Snellgrove's footsteps is a nice surprise. We probably won't be able to go as far north as I would like, but at least I will get a glimpse of the valley. Only a few porters will go with us on the sidetrip, the regular loads will be brought to Nupri. We sort our stuff out in the morning to make the loads lighter. After three days we will meet with them further up on the Circuit, and hopefully I'll have access to all my chocolate again.
Some of the porters take a shortcut and wade through a little creek after Jagat; the regular trail with a suspension bridge takes a few minutes longer but is rewarded by passing just next to two impressive waterfalls with wide pools below. After the next bend in the river a small white stripe of snow appears behind a high ridge. Since yesterday more and more mountains are revealed; now we get a full view of a large vertical rock wall and a steep icefall to the right, almost like a smaller version of Nilgiri or the Eiger north face. This is Shringi Himal, 7'187 meters high and the tallest peak north of the Buri Gandaki.
The ridge just in front of us hides the rest of the range, but the views are a welcome reminder that 'we are getting there'. With 'there' I do not necessarily mean the mountains but the highcountry in general with all the things it offers - great mountains, pleasant plains, different culture and people. We walk through some neat villages that seem only inhabited by small children. The women are cutting grass on steep slopes outside the villages, harvesting seems over and most of the things now growing do not need to be looked after (i.e. beans growing on dead maize stalks). The men are either away on trade or on the pastures with the animals.
First mani wall, first tourists passing it on the wrong side...
Where the river widens we cross it on a long a shaky bridge and climb steeply up to Philin. It is a little relief to see that others are sweating even more in the hot sun: a dozen Tibetans from Sama in their thick woolen chubas are travelling down to Gorkha. Baby production in the village is high even for Nepali standards, at every second house a child is rubbed with ointment, or fed or just left alone screaming. MCAP (Manaslu Conservation Area Project) has a small visitor center and checkpost. Their goal is to combine the development of the villages with the protection of resources and the promotion of tourism. These goals are not as diametrically opposed as they seem at first glance. The first project of that kind in the Annapurna region (ACAP) is successful and accepted by local people. Other areas in Nepal were declared National Parks, but I do not know enough to compare the two models.
The views from high above the river are fine and I enjoy the 'Mediterranean' walk; lizards scamper across the trail, cactuses and other plants create a pleasant smell of dry grass and herbs. Across the valley lies Pangsing, a large village built on the steep hillside. Eklabhatti is not an especially nice spot and offers no shade against the hot sun, so I leave soon after enjoying lunch. This is the most exciting part of the trail so far, it runs on a ledge opposite a sheer rock face and then disappears in the narrow valley. The shade is a welcome change after a whole morning in the sun. A long waterfall is coming down on our side, turns into a creek where we cross it and becomes a waterfall again a few meters below the trail. The wider path goes down to the river and to Nyak or Deng. We take the smaller one climbing up instead. The gorge is very rugged, but at some spots it is completely overgrown by green grass and light green conifers, which creates a strange contrast and very peaceful atmosphere.
I almost step on a Preying Mantis, a fascinating insect with its strange looking bright green body parts. Soon afterwards I see my first snake after 5 trekkings in the Himalayas, a two-feet long thin gray reptile, getting it into a photogenic position with the help of a stick takes some time. When I get closer to what I thought to be two birds fighting over food, the birds turn out to be two huge black butterflies.
We climb higher and higher on an 'exposed' trail (I wonder who came up with such a nice sounding word for describing dangerous trails) and reach a remarkable spot where the Shar Khola (Eastern river) flows in the Buri Gandaki, offering views into both valleys: Nupri to the west with a high peak at its end and the Tsum valley to the east with a huge white summit above the ridge. Unfortunately it is hidden in white clouds two minutes later.
Our camp will be at Lukuwa but despite our fast walking we have not come through a village and I am afraid to have missed it when I meet a man with Tibetan features in front of his house. He does not speak any Tibetan, and his Nepali is a bit strange but after Tom's third attempt we find out that we are in fact in Lukuwa. Snellgrove described the village as 'typically Tibetan', I wonder what happened to the settlement in these fifty years. A small plateau two minutes ahead will be just large enough for all our tents.
Two girls and her mother are working in the fields above the two houses. Millet was cut last week, now the rest is ripped out, the earth shaken off the roots and then the dry grass is added to a pile. Much to the amusement to the two girls I help them for half an hour. I am doing a decent job but soon my back starts to hurt and I give up - it also gets rather cold as the sun is about to set. After good dinner I go to bed, or thermarest, early at 700.
The long hours of sleeping are what makes trekking holiday-ish even in the eyes of non-trekkers.
The morning is spent walking through the dense forest, which would be nice but I am really longing for open spaces. After crossing two creeks we pass through a very narrow gorge and then start climbing up again. Shringi Himal is close now and a good reason to walk up this hill, knowing (or better: hoping) that this is the last obstacle before a wider valley makes every step less strenuous. The trail is not used often and the porters with the bulky load have to clear some tricky spots.
The river is hundreds of feet below us - but it does not provoke any concern, some even enjoy it. It is touching to see how an older couple, nicknamed Mr. and Mrs. Jones, take care of each other. They live as farmers near Arughat, but because monsoon has destroyed many of their fields they are out of work. They probably won't come all the way with us, I really, really like them and though they speak no English, I often stop when they take a break and share some snacks with them.
The views of Shringi and the Ganesh range are a well-deserved reward after the hard morning, but we still have a long way to go for our lunch spot.
The trail drops down to a bridge, then goes all the way up again. Luckily the bridge is built very high above the river, so we do not lose the entire altitude gained since the morning. The kitchen crew is already far ahead (or more exactly: far up), after a short break in the sun I climb the hill in a relatively short time. It is assuring to know that I am getting in better shape from day to day, and my knee seems fine.
When I reach the first chorten with fine paintings on the ceiling, I am both excited and very happy. Many small settlements are spread on the whole valley side, topped by mountains on all sides, with the carved mani stones in the foreground it is an amazing view. I don't spot the kitchen crew anywhere and just walk on, counting on them calling me when they see me walking past them. I find them near the creek where large boulders are a good place to warm up again after a refreshing wash. While having lunch, I enjoy the fantastic views of the mountains. The icefalls, glaciers and ridges leading to the summits seem like delicate works of art. Bringing binoculars was a good idea, though it makes me wish I had a much, much, much bigger lens and good filters for my camera.
Most villagers are in the fields, harvesting the last yellow barley, the towns are empty. We stay north of the river and continue our traverse upstream through fragrant pine forests. Monkeys are fleeing from tree to tree, it is a good thing they do not display the same attitude towards tourists as their aggressive relatives in Swayambunath. Soon afterwards I get to enjoy the hospitality which makes travelling in the Himalayas so amazing: locals are taking a break from cutting grass and invite me to join them for lunch. I decline their tsampa and buttertea (in this case more because of well-founded stomach-paranoia than because of being full, I feel hungry again soon after a meal) but sit down to have some of their popcorn and a little smalltalk.
Some porters passed me and when I catch up with them they point to the trail, so I descend to the river and cross a landslide that killed three people, many yaks, wiped out some houses and destroyed the best farmland in the valley. As it turns out, the porters showed me the wrong trail and take another one. Luckily the two brothers from Chokang that we met at lunch are also going the faster lower route, and soon catch up with me. The older of the two works as a teacher in Chokang and walked to Arughat to pick up his younger brother who studies in Kathmandu. They have to get to their village tonight and I have to hurry to keep up with their pace. I am a bit worried when we walk way past Domje and they keep repeating that there is a bridge further up. Eventually we really get to a bridge. When I offer a pack of cookies for on their way they decline and seem to feel a little insulted. They say 'it is brotherhood of man, we have to help each other', but when I insist that the biscuits are not a payment for anything but a gift, they accept it.
It takes a long time, but finally Manjul and Tenba descend from the high trail and cross the very, very shaky bridge. Taking picture of people's faces during and after crossing it would have been highly interesting. This is not to say that I looked better when I crossed...
None of us, including the crew, were here before, it is good that the two guys explained the way to the Domje bridge, it is not easy to find because the small trail in the high grass and bushes is hard to spot. We cross it near 'the blue lagoon', a beautiful spot with the blue river, steep rocks and colorful trees. The water might be a little colder than on the Maldives, but it looks the same. The flat fields around the village have been harvested and are now used to keep two dozen yaks and dzos.
Foreigners are an attraction, the people are rough but friendly and some of the kids are extremely shy. I don't know if that is a good sign, the last foreigners that camped here went missing, they were probably killed by an avalanche near Ganesh.
So far we have never used the dining tent, but now temperatures are getting chilly. This will probably be the last dinner under a clear sky. It was a long and strenuous day, and after a filling and tasty meal I go to bed early.
Since the schedule would be too tight, we can stay only one more day and have to start towards Nupri tomorrow. There will certainly be more things to explore in the next three weeks. It is hard to decide how to spend the one precious day, I could either go up the Tsum valley to Chhekampar or walk towards Ganesh basecamp, with an interesting gompa halfway there. In retrospect I should have set out for Chokang, with an early start and some luck at the checkpost I might have gotten far north.
Instead I walk up the hill towards Ganesh. The discussion with the village headman, a quite strange guy, takes some time; he wants money for nothing but then we get a guide to take us up the confusing trails. It is a long and steep climb at first, when we leave the forest it flattens (relatively speaking) and becomes a gentle walk through high yellow grass..
The vistas become better and better, straight-ahead is the steep icefall of Ganesh I (7'406 m), to our right are Ganesh III and Ganesh IV. The valley we walked up yesterday looks tiny now, the deep gorge is just a small trench in the terrific landscape. Himal Chuli (7'893 m) is dominating the scenery to the west. As we walk up higher the mountains become more impressive. The river is far, far below, walking on the small path requires some attention but is not dangerous at all.
On a gentle slope stand some simple houses, colorful trees and bushes surround the town. The ice and snow of Ganesh I in the background make it by far the prettiest village so far. Just this view alone is worth the two-hour climb. Somewhat below is the monastery that is being rebuilt after it was destroyed by fire. Who knows, maybe it burned down after some tourists visited and the locals are afraid that there might be a connection between the foreigners and the destruction. In Domje the headman was persistent that we do not take any pictures, not even of the area. A small building contains the statues and paintings that will be moved back to the lhakang later, the paintings on the wooden panels look really nice. There are three really old gompas in the area, two of them further up in Tsum and then this one here. I assume there is another monastery in the village, three nuns are in retreat for one year and do not meet or speak to anyone during that time. I am surprised not have found any reference to the monastery in any book, on the map it is named Toro Gompa.
The views are probably even better from the grazing area a few minutes further up, but I am completely satisfied and head back down to camp after spending some more minutes at the monastery. Like on previous days, clouds start moving in during the afternoon, thus making Himal Chuli even more impressive as the flat glacier slowly disappears in the clouds.
The others who went to Chhekampar had a great time. The trail climbs steeply but the views of the all the mountains forming the border are worth it. Only few tourists visit this valley and locals are very friendly, though their buttertea was not enjoyed that much. I guess I should go for the village option the next time I can chose, but the gompa was a nice sidetrip, too.
Our toilet tent disappeared! It was probably some villagers from further down that stole it between 130 and 200 at night. We met a group of climbers in Philin who had their whole advanced base camp stolen a week earlier, they caught a boy and brought him to the police station. There he will be beaten until he blurts out the name of others, but the equipment will probably not turn up. So we were lucky just to lose our toilet tent.
We are now trying to get back to the main trail towards Larkya La on a high route below Shringi Himal. Nobody could tell us how long it would take, so I get ready for two hard days. 'Getting ready' sounds very serious, yet it simply means putting extra rations of snacks in my daypack. I start a little earlier to visit Kowa village, but it proves an unnecessary detour because a large prayer wheel is the only thing of interest there. Soon afterwards I have crossed the unstable bridge and am back on the main trail. After two minutes I figure I am on the wrong path and turn around to go zigzagging up the hill just opposite the campsite. Passing some porters on the way up assures me of the correct trail.
I take off some clothes as the sun and the climb make it quite hot. So far I have always found a good balance between 'freezing for a few minutes' and 'not having to carry much clothes in the backpack', but I guess it will become more difficult higher up.
The walk through pine forests is very relaxing, especially when the trail becomes more flat. I have to drive away some yaks on their way to the grazing area. Their horns are dangerous and even the Sherpas show much respect when they get too close. Two large raptors circle above us in the dark blue sky, gliding in the wind without moving their wide wings a single time.
The mountain views are stunning again, though I would not mind the range being a bit less high so we could get a glimpse of the Tibetan high plateau that starts after the Ganesh range. As we climb steadily but not very steeply, the large number of settlements above us surprises me, they were not visible from the bottom of the valley. Far below is the lunch spot of two days ago, even the bridge across the stream is visible. The village Richet looks very interesting from high up, the three dozen houses all stand on a small ridge, only two chortens were erected on the plateau, thus saving all the land for cultivation. Supposedly the monastery features nice paintings on old wooden panels.
After walking for half a day without passing through a village, water-driven mills announce a welcome change. I give up plans of exploring the village after a small dog attacks me. Two old ladies grab their pet and assure me that it is safe now, but I can see and hear the next dog already.
I did not look at my map closely enough to see that there is a deep sidevalley to cross in order to get to Nupri. To look all the way down to our potential campsite and all the way up again on the other side (tomorrow's walk) is not exactly heartbreaking, but it does hurt to lose all the altitude. After a filling meal of peanuts (courtesy Jamie McGuinness), we walk down the steep, steep trail towards the river.
There is one suitable spot for putting up tents in a small dried out riverbed. The water in the main river is full of sediments, but a small creek with clear water makes it a decent campsite. The girls from the nearby village make the campsite acceptable to our porters, too. I feel a bit bad for the porters, they try flirting, giving nice compliments and later suggestive jokes, but they are just ridiculed by the girls, though I guess they do find it at least a little flattering. So despite the hard day everybody is in a good mood.
This is the second day of our 'high trail to Nupri' exploration. The traverse yesterday was just amazing and will hard to top. Locals said it would take us 6 hours to 11/2 days from here to the next village, so nobody knows how long it will take. This trembling uncertainty is a good excuse to bring even more snacks than yesterday.
What should have warned us of the things to come is the fact that Jamie takes out the Choco flakes and real muesli for breakfast. After this treat we try to find out which trail the porters took. The first two hours will be steep uphill walking, that is for sure. We packed early so the crew could go ahead, and after some minutes I spot the last two - Mr. and Mrs. Jones - way above me. There must be a trail somewhere but I go for the direct route and soon catch up with them. As we get higher, more of the valley is revealed. The clouds in front of Shringi Himal are dispersing just in time to unveil the steep rock faces, icefalls and glaciers. What I took for the final ridge is of course not the final one, but at least we are above the highest point of yesterday and rewarded by interesting views all the way up the valley. Red and yellow trees and Shringi make it even more interesting. The whole Ganesh range is to the right, but the sunlight blurs the details that make the mountains so exceptionally beautiful and seem to give them even some kind of personality.
The trail is slowly disappearing in the yellow grass, the silhouette of chorten high up indicates a landmark which we probably should not miss. There is some confusion about which trail to take, two people almost got lost further down and keeping the group together is not that easy. With some yelling and waving everybody is on the right 'trail' and climbs the steep hill. Two incentives make regular stops enjoyable: 1. the fantastic views, and 2. the hard climb at relative high altitude. Admittedly, the order might be the other way round.
But eventually I get up to the chorten, it was a fantastic climb with an even better vista: Himal Chuli and Boudha Himal to the southwest, Shringi to the north and Ganesh on the opposite side of the valley that stretches far northeast. Settlements and their fields cover most of the northern valley wall that looked much steeper from the bottom. The mountain pasture we just climbed is steep, and the other side of the ridge is a vertical barren face, for a moment I feel rather uncomfortable. I was fine when busy walking, but now there is time to look around and realize how high up we are. Not that there is any danger, though with snow or lots of rain it might be risky taking this trail, but I just don't like heights very much. After a relaxed break with tea and chocolate I feel better and fully take in the great surroundings.
Some are sweating more than others, but everybody makes it, even the porters arrive just a few minutes later. After the well-deserved break we continue our climb, after reaching the second chorten we set out for the traverse towards the Nupri valley. We descend a very steep gully and are zigzagging down, trying not to send fist-sized rocks thundering down but occasionally it is necessary to run a few meters for a safe spot. After resting on another ridge and another steep descent the trail changes. So far it was only strenuous and steep. Now it also becomes tricky, narrow rock ledges where some parts require balancing and holding on to the wall make it very exciting. I am stunned to see how the porters cope with this, at one spot the kitchen boy has to try several times to find a way around a difficult corner where his basket gets caught on an overhanging rock. Eventually we reach a spot wide enough for a dozen people to sit down and have lunch.
Every time I think the views cannot get better they do: Boudha Himal, Himal Chuli and the wide glacial valley are 15 miles away. We got here just in time, a few minutes later fog moves up fast, hiding most mountains. A nameless peak of the Lobche range just across the valley is hiding and re-appearing out of the clouds, changing its appearance every few minutes depending on the cloud cover.
After lunch the traverse becomes easier and we soon get to the final bend before entering the main valley to the west. A wildfire destroyed most of the pine forest; far away some high peaks of the Kutang Himal rise above the charcoaled trees. Looking towards south we spot Lukuwa, Eklabhatti and Philin - villages we stayed at a week ago. I expect a gentle downhill traverse to the campsite from here on. I am wrong. The trail is easy at first but then we get into underbrush and increasingly wet and dense forest. Bharat just loves it, every time when his laughter gets louder you can expect steep muddy parts where you have to grab some bamboo, or other difficult obstacles. We climb over dead trees, crouch beneath dead trees, climb down rocks and slip in the morass. One spot requires climbing down a notched trunk for a few meters. After some more exposed spots we can relax a little and fully enjoy the hike just above deep valleys. Despite our efforts the terrain has slowed us down, two hours later we can still see the charcoaled forest. There will not be any villages or campsites for a few more hours, and since we are running low on food our crew is hurrying and far ahead of most tourists.
It is the first time I walk with Bharat, our sirdar. The porter problems kept him busy the previous days, now he is more relaxed. He is very funny guy without being cocky. His saying 'Same same but different' quickly becomes a favorite amongst us. The Manaslu Circuit is well-known to him, and though he has done it several times he is still curious enough to walk around in the villages. His (not serious) attempts at matchmaking will not be successful, but this doesn't make the time spent near the kitchen fire with local girls any less memorable.
After getting out of the forest we reach bright green wheat fields and a few houses, all of them deserted. I am surprised that nobody is watching the fields, a large group of Langurs is fleeing from us but will soon be back and enjoy the grain. Tom and I follow Tenba, assuming that he has received instructions from Bharat and knows where to go. From the ridge we look into the Nupri valley and some 'smaller' sidevalleys. I stop for a minute and suddenly everybody has disappeared. I pick one of the trails branching off where I imagine to see familiar boot prints; luckily after some minutes descending in the forest I catch up with Raju, a kitchen boy. It must be late afternoon already and the prospect of walking in the dark is an incentive to increase my speed - I am running down the hill. Nevertheless, I reckon it will be dusk before we get anywhere. After ten minutes I am at the bottom of the valley, resist the temptation to fill up my water bottle in the creek and content myself with a refreshing face wash instead.
Then it is up another hill on a neat trail chiseled in a steep rockface. Tenba is far, far ahead but I caught up with kitchen boy Tenzi on the way down and can keep up with him. I am really glad about all the snacks I am carrying today; we enjoy lots of calories while waiting for Raju and Tom. Sherpas are a proverb for loyalty and discipline, and I think Tenzi would have rather walked half-starved than eating any of the biscuits from the kitchen-basket he is carrying.
Through binoculars I spot Manjul and somebody else near the wheat fields, they are taking a strange trail leading right towards the steep cliff. There is nothing I can do but hope that they will find a better trail soon.
We continue down towards the Buri Gandaki, this should really be the last descent for today. I am starting to feel a little tired after ten hours of walking. Just before dusk we get to three simple houses near the river where Tenba is waiting. He wants us to go on because there is no food or even space for tents at Rana. I am fine with walking for another hour and we continue, increasing the speed, trying to reach Bim Phedi (also called Bihi) before it gets really dark. One part is a bit difficult without flashlight and I almost slip, but apart from a small scratch on my hand we arrive safe and sound and are greeted by Tenzing's laughter.
After drinking 2 liters of mineral water, eating some snacks, a complete wash with cold water and another snack I feel surprisingly fit. My mood has not suffered either, on the contrary. And thanks to the reunion with our sorted out gear from Jagat I even get to put on new clothes. A fresh shower and new clothes are more relaxing than two rest days.
Jamie is not in such a good mood when he arrives half an hour later; Tenba should have waited at the first possible campsite since not everybody will be able to make it to here. Tenzing sets out with some food for them. Most of them and porters get here an hour or two later. Their moods are very different, but after spending ten days together it is possible to guess how people feel and treat them accordingly - thus preventing any arguments or fights that could easily arise after such a day.
Some knees are hurting (surprisingly enough, not mine), otherwise everybody is fine. This will be an easy half-day walk since the group needs to be re-united and the loads have to re-distributed. Dana and Dagmar arrive for breakfast, they camped a little further down. Half a rest day is pleasant after yesterday's tough walk.
Luckily the weather is brilliant when we get up late. Non-trekking people will never understand what is so special about days like this: Sleeping in, getting up just as the sun hits the tent, having breakfast in a T-shirt, taking a bath and letting yourself dry by the sun, then putting on freshly washed clothes. Half a day of such luxurious leisure is a well-enjoyed rarity.
The walk to Ghap will take only some hours, so we have lunch at Bim Phedi and start after dessert. The valley is still narrow but the absence of dense forests makes it seem wide and open. Villages, their fields and the wild scenery are a nice contrast. Fields of red, green and yellow grow on the steep walls. Mani walls with nicely carved stones depicting the life of Buddha, long texts or Taras are the cultural highlights.
After a narrow gorge with impressive washouts high above the water level the valley bottom becomes wider and flat. Ghap is surrounded by large fields, a picturesque site with a snow peak far away. The trail passes the village in some distance and follows the river, the end of the village is marked by a whitewashed chorten and building with colorful rural paintings containing a large prayerwheel. More mani walls with fine rock carvings have been erected just before the bridge.
I am afraid to have walked too far and climb one of the huge boulders overlooking the trail to wait for the others. A strange looking animal with a long tail and black and white fur is walking around the gompa. It is much too big for a weasel but definitely not a monkey or a large cat either. Tenzing thinks it is a kind of mongoose that lives solely on chicken blood.
We cross the bridge and get to a nice-looking lodge and campsite half an hour outside of Ghap. A Buddhist monk performs a ceremony in the living room, assisted by two small boys. They carry the offerings out of the room, walk around a juniper-fire a few times and throw the tsampa figures into the air. After the ceremony is over I play with the two brothers - using the remains of the tsampa offerings as a toy. This is probably not very sensitive, but the kids really enjoy it. All I can say in my defense is that the only other throwable objects are stones, and that is definitely not a good alternative to tsampa.
High above on the steep cliff is another settlement, only visible because of its bright white chortens (Kokwa Gompa). Prok and its monastery are worth a sidetrip, but I enjoy a lazy evening at camp instead of walking up to the village.
While dozing off I imagine to hear rain on my tent, but when I get up at night the stars shine brightly on the clear sky. The first thought in the morning is 'having more chicken curry'. No, I am not considering giving up vegetarianism, but the cock that wakes me up would not be able to do that had it been cooked the day before.
The trail is muddy at first as follows the river upstream through dense forest. After crossing the river at an impressive spot where it thunders down a narrow gorge, the forest becomes less dense and the trail is fine again. Green grass grows between big conifers, pine needles on the ground make it an easy and quiet walk, you cannot even hear your footsteps. Soon later a white summit rises high above the colorful trees. The creek is dropping steeply over large boulders; the white water is a nice contrast against the varicolored plants and the deep blue sky. The pleasant walk continues and after a last steep climb we reach Namru, from where I expect a great view over a wide valley. Well, the village is nice, but the open spaces are still some hours away. The golden barley fields and glaciers on the ridges high above it are a good enough reward, to say the least. To the south rises a huge peak, probably Himal Chuli. If you follow a similar itinerary try staying at the campsite here and walk up to Lho the next day.
None of us is too happy that we meet another group. They probably feel the same way about us, but I would like to think that my disliking them is based on facts because they walked around the chorten counter-clockwise. When people don't spend time at home learning about the country they will visit, well, I find it strange but some seem to be very busy. But if you cannot even follow the most basic cultural conventions (consciously or for lack of knowing) after being in the country some days, you should have stayed at home. At least the French group serves as a reminder how fortunate we are to be in an area almost devoid of tourists.
Another group that has lunch at the creek is a research team from Kathmandu. They visit Sama monastery for a few days to microfilm old scripts. After looking for rare old Tibetan Buddhist literature in all parts of Nepal for many years, Sama will be the last monastery they visit. When they first started 30 years ago, their 'activities' were often met with suspicion by the local communities, and lamas were reluctant to show the century-old books to foreigners. But after some explanations they agreed, and these days they get a small amount of money (3 to 6 rupees for each page, 10 pages = 1$). Sometimes the lamas bring the scripts to Kathmandu. But often that is not possible and the team visits the monastery and does the microfilming there. Carrying the camera, strong lights and generator creates quite a few jobs for porters. The German project leader spent the last six years in Nepal, often hiking in remote areas: we have been to many of the same places and find out we even have common acquaintances. A Tibetan scholar is with the team, and also a monk from Sama who came to meet them. I hope to hear more of their profound way of explaining whole scenes of mural paintings at Sama.
The area is more densely inhabited; a few scattered houses are down at the valley floor where people are working in the yellow fields. Climbing steadily in the shade of a forest takes us to Lihi, a fine village with many chortens and many barley terraces. I am tempted to explore a monastery further up, but we still have quite some way to go to Lho. Ganesh Himal rises high into the sky when we turn around. The main valley straight ahead is getting wider and fields cling to both walls, a smaller valley is joining just after the village. The trail drops and crosses the sidevalley of Simnang Himal. The creek's water is used for irrigation, large pipes made of entire trees and trenches transport the precious water to the fields above Lihi. The trek was great so far, but now we reach the area I had in mind when I decided to come on this trek.
A chorten with detailed paintings announces Sho, another nice village with fine views up the open valley. The building that clings to the rock face must be a monastery, some isolated white chortens and a house or two with no fields around it stand on a small ledge next to a narrow gorge.
Clouds have built up at the end of the valley, when they become less dense I am stunned by a huge wall of ice that rises above Lho. What I took to be fog was in the fact the massive peak of Manaslu. I just stand there and watch in awe. The town is built on a ridge high above the valley and looks like a fort from far away. The traverse is an gentle walk, apart from a washed out sidevalley it is an easy hike in lively and interesting surroundings.
Almost everywhere grows ripe barley. Small watchtowers are in the fields to chase away animals. A rustle in the trees startles me for a second, I did not expect such a close encounter with a big Langur monkey. Two minutes the watchtower in use, an old woman throws stones at a whole Langur clan that raids her barley field. The work is incredibly hard and tiring, singing makes it more pleasant and occasionally they sit down for some tsampa and butter tea.
Walking in the dusk again is not a nice prospect so we continue without taking long breaks. Some locals are also on their way home and carry large baskets of barley or hay, but on many fields the work will continue until it gets dark. One final steep slope needs to be climbed and then we reach the houses that are lined up on a ridge. I am surprised to see even more houses. Usually villages get smaller the higher you are, here it is just the opposite. The older part of town is lying on a gentle hillside and is surrounded by endless terraces, a large forest of green and yellow larches separates them from the cliffs further up. The buildings all look very similar; solid stone houses with slate as roof, wooden balconies and large courtyards. Young animals are kept in there, the stacks of firewood are almost as high as the large haystacks in front.
People in the large fields look like small dots in the yellow terraces, their laughing and singing can be heard from some distances. The campsite is on a little plateau above the village, on the way there we pass a fine chorten and a chest-high mani wall a hundred meters long.
It is getting chilly and the porters are at least an hour behind. Instead of sitting in the smoky kitchen I go for some more exercise to stay warm. After a short introduction to harvesting I 'help' on a nearby field. The barley ears are cut off on the field, thrown in a large basket and then flailed in the courtyard. When all the fields have been harvested, people start cutting and collecting the hay. With a sickle the plant is ripped out and put on piles. I am doing a terrible job at first but the lady keeps encouraging me and after fifteen minutes I do not miss too many sheaves. Doing hard work in a crouching position is too much for a back that is used to sit on an ergonomic chair ten hours a day. But it is a great way to mingle with the villagers and sometimes leads to invitations or shared meals. I wish we had more time for these kinds of things, but I am so fortunate to be here that there is no reason to complain.
After it got dark the porters arrive, I wonder if they are angry with Bharat because it was another very long day for them.
It is considerably colder than just a day ago, but the Sherpa stew gives enough warmth. While lying in the cozy sleeping bag I already imagine the stunning views of tomorrow. Wild dogs howl from the forest as I fall asleep.
At least one of the wild dogs has enough courage to visit the campsite, its howling probably woke up everybody. When I get out soon later the scenery is breathtaking. Bright stars illuminate the massive pyramid of Manaslu, a white triangle in the black night.
I wake up before the alarm rings - which I set too early anyway because I was afraid to miss the sunrise. Shortly before 600 the color of snow and ice on Manaslu changes to a strange, clear white. Some minutes later the very top of the pinnacle is pink, changing to orange as more of the mountain gets hit by the sun. When half of the pyramid is illuminated, the ranges next to it also turn orange while the rest of the valley is still in the dark. This is the only indication of how enormously big the mountain really is, its summit is 4'500 m above us.
Our next camp in Sama is only half a day further west, this leaves plenty of time to spend in Lho and do some of the exploring we didn't have time for yesterday. Before breakfast I walk down to the village to enjoy the fantastic views, the silhouettes of the houses and their smoke look lovely in the backlight. The mountains with the chorten and mani wall are even more remarkable. Male yaks with wide horns are driven down to the village where a large herd is tethered to pegs in the ground. Most of them carry saddles for mounting loads, the larger yaks have colorful strings in their ears. Soon they will set out for Tibet, crossing easy passes to the trading places on the high plateau.
The town's meeting place is in front of the gompa. A dozen people, mostly men and old women, sit in the sun and argue about läga (work), I wonder why they are not on the fields. In (former) Tibet and Ladakh harvesting is often done by a community thing, the fields belong to a family but people help each other. Here it is often just two or three people working in one field, though maybe that is because they just started and there is enough work of everybody. Maybe after a family finishes their own fields they start helping their neighbors. The men are probably about to go trading and wait for more yaks to get back.
The caretaker is also there and lets me in the monastery. Only the very upper part is from the old monastery, everything else was renovated. The number of books is large, an adjacent buildings holds the complete collection of scripts of the Kandjur and Tandjur, supposedly even in two different scripts.
After an hour in the village I walk up to the fields. Everybody assumes I lost the way and points to the other trail. They are surprised when I tell them that this is a great spot to spend some time. Not only are the great views of the fields and the colorful forest above it pleasant, but the people are really nice. Harvesting is done mostly by women. The older women are more reserved at first, but communicating with the kids and the girls is easy and fun. After some minutes their mothers or older sisters join and we share some snacks and tea. Time passes very quickly and I should catch up with the rest of the group, they already left for Sama awhile ago after visiting the school. I climb the steep hill near or camp, assuming that the trails lead to a monastery, but only a construction site is up there. When I asked people they said there is a gompa up there, maybe this is where it will be one day. Or maybe they meant Pungyen Gompa, half a day up a ridge overlooking the glaciers.
The Buri Gandaki is far down and has a turquoise color now, but we will follow a small tributary instead. There are plans to install a electricity generator, a aisle is cut through the forest to put up the power poles. Large trees are being logged, a dozen tough looking men load timber onto yaks. Bringing wood to Tibet is a very lucrative business, it is traded for wheat which is brought back to their village Lho. With their help I find the trail to Sama again, after some minutes in mud along a shallow creek I catch up with our group.
Walking in the shady fir forest is very enjoyable. After picnic below a steep ice-covered ridge that rises above the green treetops (Ngadi Chuli?) it is just a short climb to a plateau and the village Shyala.
Logging is a thriving business in Shyala. Forty wooden cabins are either shops or logger's houses, most of the trees around the village were already cut down. It is a sad and pathetic place, though the scenery is the most impressive we have seen so far. Huge mountains surround us, Himal Chuli and Peak 29 (recently renamed to Ngadi Chuli) to the left, Manaslu and large glaciers straight ahead, other snow summits to the right, at the far end of the valley we have just come from stands Ganesh Himal. An amphitheater of snow and ice! But the boomtown is a reason not to stay long. The logging seems uncontrolled, which is surprising because we are in a conservation area, supposedly there is even a government office monitoring logging.
After the coming out of he forest and crossing a washed-out sidevalley a wide plain lies in front of us, surrounded by large mountains on all sides. Harvesting season is over, otherwise the barren fields would look even prettier. From a large chorten we look down into a little dip where two rows of houses form the main part of Sama. The large mani pile and white chorten produce the effect of feeling welcome when walking on the trail with pretty houses to both sides. At the far end of the village, overlooking the valley, stands the well-known monastery of Sama. It is worth a long visit tomorrow.
It is one of the few monasteries that still attract a large community of nuns and monks. They live in their own small houses that are built around the gompa, each has a small living room to the left and a slightly larger private chapel to the right. The living room serves as kitchen, storage room and bedroom, therefore it is really cramped and smoky. The chapel is kept very clean and is very cozy, I was thinking about staying in a house the two nights we are here, but the tent will be much more comfortable.
The campsite on the 'outskirts of Sama' is behind the monastery, close to the glacier that comes from Manaslu. The ice moves constantly, small avalanches are the most vivid sign of its force, though the strange sound seems even scarier than the avalanches.
Beautiful sunrise again, but it was much colder than just a day ago and I don't get up to take pictures. I do not feel very well. I cannot say what is wrong, but something just feels strange. Therefore I give up my highflying plans of a tough sidetrip to Pungyen Gompa, a monastery with great views of the glacier. It is named after Manaslu, Pungyen means bracelet, a good description of the two peaks. It was destroyed a year after the first unsuccessful Japanese attempt to climb Manaslu. The locals believed that the climb angered the gods, and when the Japanese came back a year they met so much resistance that they had to give up their attempt. They finally summitted in 1959.
But to walk back to Shyala and then up the ridge would be too much for me now, I opt for the easy sidetrip to the glacial lake instead. Since there seems to be no path to the glacier, Tom, John and I bushwhack for some time before we find a trail that goes up to a small ridge. Below us is a green lake with small icebergs, a vertical wall of rock covered by ice builds its far end. The glacier goes up steeply first but then takes a left turn from where a steep ridge goes to the summit of Manaslu. A local herder is watching the yaks that stand in the icy water to cool off. While trying to get to the spot for the picture I slip - or more exactly, the trail just slides down - toward the creek. My hand suffers a little after the successful attempt to avoid a freezing bath. Luckily it is only scratches and after washing off the blood in the ice-cold water it stops hurting. (And yes; the picture of the yak in the river with the glacier and Manaslu peak in the background was worth it.)
The other want to climb further up to the glacier, but I am feeling not any better - on the contrary - and I decide to turn back, planning to take a nap and maybe visiting the village in the afternoon. I feel weak but cannot fall asleep, after some hours I finally throw up, and go to bed again. I do feel better now, but have fever during the night and weird, weird dreams. But at least I sleep and the strange feeling in my stomach seems to have disappeared the next morning.
I feel much better but still weak, hopefully just because I have not eaten for a day and not because of something else. I skip breakfast assuming to make it easily to Samdo, since it should be a short day.
I want to catch up at least a little on what I missed yesterday and have the luck that some people are at the monastery. Laymen and monks sit around the fire in the closeby building and assure me that is ok to enter. The smaller chapel on the left seems to be the library, many books with beautiful silk covers are in large racks, wrathful deities are depicted with fine paintings on the walls. The altar on the larger room contains statues of Padmasambhava, other historical figures and a large red-painted Vajrapani in the corner. The bronze statue of Guru Rinpoche was manufactured by Patan craftsman about 100 years ago. The painted wooden panels are very beautiful, the rural paintings are equal masterpieces of art. Looking at everything would take hours, so no matter how much time I spend in these rooms it will feel like 'rushing' through it without giving the attention they deserve. An old monk sees me leaving and waves me to look at another chapel, I am not sure if the small chapel is his private room or part of the complex, unfortunately the thangkas show their age.
It is a fine view from the monastery and its colorful prayerflags down to the flat valley and mountains rising steeply above it. The wide valley is becoming narrower as we climb higher, below the glacier we get the most stunning view of Manaslu. I can already see myself sorting out pictures at home, trying to find the best one of the mountain. We pass a long mani wall with fine carvings, afterwards it gets a little steeper and I slow down - probably due to skipped meals and not altitude. I really hope that the feeling in my stomach indicates only hunger, but I am too afraid to test it yet and try to not to eat anything today. Now we walk parallel to the Buri Gandaki again. After crossing it on a wooden bridge it is a steep climb up to a simple chorten, a few minutes further up stands a more elaborate whitewashed chorten. One valley goes north, another one branches off to the west. Trails follow both valleys but no village is in sight and I start worrying since I am running out of energy.
When I get to the chorten I am surprised to see three houses just ahead of me and a few seconds later a whole village on the valley to the east. This is Samdo! I have a whole afternoon for exploring and resting. The simple houses stand at the junction of three valleys ('sum' means 'three' in Tibetan and probably led to the name), Pang Puche (6'338 m) towers above it. Its moraine forms the eastern valley, the one to the west comes from Manaslu and a river flows in the northern valley that goes almost straight to Tibet. Most of the fields lie on a triangular plain between the two last valleys, some are just in front of the village but agriculture cannot play an important part in people's lives. There is simply not enough fields to live on, therefore trading is probably more important. The village was established in the 1950s by Tibetans who fled from Chinese occupation and moved into Nepali territory.
This is one of the places I enjoy most when trekking - isolated and surrounded by barren hills, with friendly people who do not mind a curious but reserved tourist exploring their village. Two whitewashed buildings stand out amidst the two dozen houses, one holds a large prayerwheel, the larger building is the monastery. The main door is locked and the caretaker nowhere around. The sound of drums and wind instruments comes from a house below the gompa, since many of the reasons for holding a private ceremony are not pleasant I do not want to intrude and watch the 'simple' village life instead. This includes joking around with local beauties - something I would not do in the Hindu villages because it would feel too weird, but here the girls are very outspoken, self-assured and down-to-earth. Their dresses are simple but very effective, under a short-sleeved dark colored chuba they wear fine silk blouses. Attached to the woolen waistbelt is a silver spoon with a turquoise, its meaning is unclear but they are proud to point out that it is becoming a fashion in other places, too. The necklaces of turquoise and red corals, the golden earrings go well with the dress and the colorful strings in the braided black hair. I usually never ask twice when somebody does not want to be photographed, but after - honestly meant - compliments the shyness often disappears. I promise to send copies, Bharat comes here often and can deliver the pictures since postal service to remote areas is unreliable at best.
Most of the men are away on trade, the older kids are watching the cattle on the meadows and return just after dusk. Nevertheless, the village is full of activities: weaving, flailing, cooking, baby-sitting, gossiping, etc. A woman waves me into her house where she is making tsampa. A small door leads into a dark room where a juniper fire serves at the hearth. In a large pan barleycorns are mixed with fine black sand and then roasted over the open flame. For some reason, barley has to be roasted before it can be eaten. The sand prevents burning and makes the corn pop a little. It is then shaken off and the corn is grounded into a fine flower. Mixed with water and siben (chilli sauce) is tastes ok, the original version with butter tea tastes a little strange to most Western people. Chimneys do not exists out of fear that a demon could enter the building - whoever invents a solution that does not contradict local beliefs will be a preventer of many eye-diseases.
It is easy to romanticize the lives of these people. To a Westerner it seems simple and fulfilling at first. And really, despite the hardships of everyday life many people are happy and satisfied - at least that is the impression I got. But basic things like decent healthcare and good education are absent in the villages, and people rightly feel that they do miss out on some very valuable things that would make a huge difference in their lives. And that is all what they are asking for, not roads and TVs, but healthcare and schools. The government simply cannot provide it - I am not to judge whether that is because it is of financial and logistical problems, or because of corruption, or because of something else. But to those people it must seem like nobody in Kathmandu gives a damn about their problems.
Decentralization and the creation of Village Development Committees are a step into the right direction. However, as long as they do not get more resources (this includes not only money but also political authority) to organize themselves, nothing will really change. The success of the Maoists would not have been possible without the support or at least acceptance of the local people. I do not know if the Maoists really run things better than the government on a local level, and I doubt they have the ability to govern the whole country effectively - but it will be hard to do a worse job than the current government. With all the changes of governments, Prime Ministers and unstable coalitions, not much can get done.
Somehow I feel that Nepal is facing very difficult times. When I came here the first time 10 years ago many people were excited about their future when they thought about the possibilities of democracy. These hopes seem gone in many places, it is not that people are showing their anger and disappointment openly, but they do not anticipate changes for the better anymore. The following editorial in a newspaper sums it up very well:
"The education sector is in very bad frame. The economy is in a state of rupture. The law and order synopsis is clear to us all. The social sector remains divided on partisan lines. Nation's academia most unfortunately stands in a clutter. The bureaucracy is sinister to the extent that with the rumor of a possible change in government or party leadership, they keep their pens down thus hitting the nation very hard. The leadership in the government apparently feels that while being in government they should amass wealth for generations and generations to come with the possible fear whether next time the voters will prefer them or not. The coterie in and around the ministers and the Prime Minister is also talked to be highly corrupt. The very core parliamentary organs, which have been allowed by the constitution to issue strict directives to the government for do's and don'ts, have either been neglected or thrown to the waste basket summarily." - Telegraph, 6 December 2000
In the last few years, 1'500 people died in the conflicts. The influence of Maoists has been growing, it is doubtful that it will decrease despite the formation of special courts and the creation of new armed government units to fight the 'insurgents'. Before I came to Nepal this year I was in favor of the army getting involved, now I realize that the underlying problem that gave rise to the Maoists is poverty and missing development - and these challenges will not be solved by military force.
[Important note: I am not a sociologist living in Nepal, only an interested tourist who tries to follow Nepali politics also from back home.]
As I pass a large house, an older woman invites me to come in. A large family sits around the fire in the spacious living room. Then I hear the drums and recitations again, this time much louder since it comes from the adjacent room. After some seconds the eyes get used to the dark and I see a small door leading to a private chapel. It is a room 3 to 5 meters wide with some dozen books, statues and thangkas, not lavishly decorated or furnished, but obviously in regular use. Four monks sit opposite each other and recite texts with an occasional glimpse at the scripts. Three of them seem to be laypeople, only the youngest, a man of about 30 years, is wearing monk's robes and a red hat. He is the lama and knows which scripts are next. The others recite the texts and play the instruments.
The ceremony is performed to ask for protection. A simple looking effigy made out of tsampa is placed on a plate with barley. It seems to be the center of the ceremony, a much more detailed figure, a wrathful black painted protector deity with the head of a bull (Yamantaka?), has so far been placed in the middle of the room without getting any attention. Suddenly the lama takes the small effigy and throws it towards the door. At that point I decide to leave because I feel I might be disturbing from now on. The small procession of monks and curious kids is walking to a small chorten at the town's end, carrying with them the tsampa figure, Yamantaka, a bucket with burning horse dung and juniper branches, while playing the instruments. There more texts are recited, though it is hard to tell from the distance what is happening exactly.
The procession is followed by the same French tourists who just half an hour ago gave a demonstration of their cultural awareness by handing out pens to begging children. Maybe it is prejudice or the fact that many groups from France come to Nepal, but I have often witnessed French's utterly disrespect for local culture. It just makes me sick and also embarrassed. And the only word that the 'Grande Nation' seems to be able to mutter is 'bonjour'. Their liaison officer left at Jagat, but even if he were still with them he probably would not have interfered. Manjul, our liaison officer, promise he will talk to them (they would not want 'us Americans' to criticize them), though it is doubtful that he will. He never complained when we or our crew went against the regulations. And even if he mentions anything in his report, nothing will happen.
Some of us climb up the valley towards the border, hoping to get a glimpse of the vastness of the Tibetan high plateau. They cannot quite make it to the pass and did not think about taking tents and some food, but they did get fine views and do not regret the sidetrip. I am not up to strenuous exercise yet, and also skip an easier sidetrip up the hill just above the village from where the views are probably awesome.
I take a nap on a haystack on a roof instead, just one of the many pleasant experiences when trekking. It is a pity that I was sick on the days with much time for longer excursions, but I feel lucky not to have become seriously sick. And spending time in such villages is at least as rewarding as great views. I regained some strength thanks to the electrolyte that tasted sickening (in the true sense of the word), but with a sip of Tang in between it was endurable. It surely helped me to walk up the hill this morning. My stomach can handle snacks again, hopefully I will be on 'normal' portions (which means double or triple portions) back soon for the pass.
The sun disappears very early behind a hill, and it gets cold just after 300. Bharat and Tenzing call me to join them in one of the shops. It is a very comfortable place with a carpet around a fire that is not too smoky. The 'aja la' is a 30-year old Tibetan whose husband is coming back from Tibet in a few days. She is flirting more than I really like, and receives much support from Bharat. She suggests marrying (after assuring me that she has no children) and taking her to Switzerland. The offer is not too serious, but to be on the safe side I point out all the negative things of Western society in hope of destroying the fairy-tale image.
While walking around earlier I met the teacher of the local school, a man from the low lands whom I did not like at all. Now the slimeball is joining us in the shop, after a five-minute conversation I just have to leave. Then I meet the lama, who invites me again into the chapel. The main ceremony seems over and the atmosphere is more relaxed. The final part seems to consist of three recitations, I wonder if the hats have any significance. He is not wearing one during the first prayer, for the second one he puts on a yellow cotton cap, then a red hat. The community follows both the Nyingma and Kagyü tradition (he even calls the monastery Nyingma-Kagyü), so the yellow cap cannot have anything to do with the Gelug tradition. I am given butter tea and there is no way I can decline, though I am very worried about my stomach. I take a few sips, smile to people, and when nobody is watching pour it between the wooden planks on the floor. This is terribly rude, but once you spent a night at -10° C in a tent worrying about throwing up every time you woke up, you will understand. Though I must say that so far I never ever got sick from local drinks, be it rakshi, chang or butter tea.
The family's eldest member is an old, old man. With great pride he was cleaning an ancient gun for most of the afternoon, and now he straps it to the other weapons that are tied to the pillar in the chapel. So my impression that - despite the missing statues of dharmapalas - this is the gonkhang (room of protector deities) cannot be entirely wrong. Chang is also served, and one of the drum players is now holding a baby in his arm. The serious religious part of the ceremony is over. It was sponsored by the wealthiest local family. Monsoon is over and the difficult wintertime begins. The ceremony was performed to protect the village, its inhabitants and the animals. The village's dzos (mixture of cow and yak) are brought to Manang in the coming days. They have to spend the winter in lower pastures since they cannot deal with extreme cold. Most of the yaks will be in Tibet during that time, because snow on the south side of the Himalayas makes fodder difficult to find.
Despite of being in the same village committee as Sama, the people from Samdo are not allowed to trade wood. Therefore they have specialized in trading jewelry, and of course when you ask them business is very bad, so it is difficult to tell how well they are doing. I cannot imagine them to be very wealthy, because some of them came here recently, but supposedly some are affluent enough to own houses in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
This was a great day: in the morning I was worrying about my health and half a day later my mind is filled with all the interesting scenes from the village.
Tomorrow we will walk towards the great white peak that is rising above the brown barren hills in the west. Larkya La must be somewhere close to it, and because the walk to base camp is short I can probably spend another day in Samdo.
As usual, the sky makes the toilet stops at night an (almost) pleasant experience. Apart from that, I sleep much better than yesterday and regain some strength. And I have only one strange dream: "The first thing I did when I got back to Switzerland was signing up for Cho Oyo climb - and being scolded by my mother for it." I hope this is a good omen for Chulu Far East.
I get to experience another wonderful sunrise, this time over Himal Chuli. We pack early to make it easier for the porters, they like to start early to escape the freezing temperatures and the hot sun in the afternoon. Though it is freezing before the sun hits the camp, it is much warmer than in Sama. Dharamsala is probably not very exciting, so I stay in the village for as long as it is interesting.
Our red hand-washing bucket was stolen last night, which probably makes us look even more primitive in the eyes of the French. Remember, our toilet tent was stolen a week ago and the hand-made alternative does not look very fancy. Now everybody makes jokes about the French. I think at first people thought that my dislike was just prejudice. Well, I really was prejudiced but it all turned out to be true.
A yak caravan arrived yesterday night, they started packing an hour ago but are still busy when we finish breakfast. It takes a long time to get the yaks ready and loaded. It is a great scene, if the pictures turn out half as good as the ones I have in my mind I'll be very happy. Just the colors by itself are wonderful; the white, black and brown yaks, the men with woolen caps and white shirts, blue sky, ochre hills and the white summit on the horizon.
Afterwards I stroll through the village for a some time, and see that the door of the gompa is now open. I meet the lama and the 'laymonks' again, they are preparing more tormas. The head lama is forming square pedestals out of tsampa and glues them together with a mixture of chang and barleycorns. The iconography is clearly laid down and he consults the detailed instructions for each of the figures. His 'colleagues' prepare other parts of the 'mini-chorten', later the figures are put together, painted and finer figures made out of colored butter are added to it. Simple tormas take about three hours, there is virtually no time limit for the larger and more elaborate ones. Ironically, the lama did not get any of the pens that the French handed out yesterday, though he is probably the one who really needs them for drawing the instructions.
The sleazy teacher has noticed that I do not like him very much, some of the locals don't seem to like the school very much either. On the one hand I can understand that teachers from the low land do not like to be in such remote areas. It is cold, the food is different, the culture is unfamiliar, the salary not very enticing either. But they are teachers and should try their best. A good teacher can make a huge difference in these kids' lives. In Lho two government is paying for two teachers and a doctor at the healthpost - all three simply never showed up. At least the VDCs are getting more money and can employ their own teachers now. Of course it is best when a teacher returns to his own village after finishing education in Kathmandu, but it is must be hard after enjoying city life. Educating children often raises awareness of their parents, and thus the development of a whole village can increase dramatically by having good teachers at the local school. Maybe there would be more teachers if women's education were to be encouraged, I have never met a female teacher in remote areas.
I decline the offer of tea, and also the one of rakshi and chang, and when I tell them that I also do not eat meat they jokingly say 'kyerang lama ray' (you are a lama), my reply 'lama detsi yin, yineh phö pumo peh nyingchenmo dug ani gabo yö' (I am lama just a little bit, I like the beautiful Tibetan girls) is causing much amusement. Encounters like these are worth climbing many, many hills and passes... But my language skills still need much, much improvement, luckily Jamie is also here and can translate his conversation in Nepali.
After passing the fields and climbing slowly up towards Dharamsala the village becomes smaller and smaller. I often turn around and remember the pleasant time in the houses that look microscopic now compared to the huge Pang Puchi next to them. The trail runs above a moraine from the hidden Manaslu massif, above it rise rocks walls too steep to be covered by large snowfields, 'only' the ridges and summits are white. Red bushes, mani walls and chortens make the scenery more stunning. More and more peaks appear as we higher up, at first Larkya Peak is most impressive, then the two peaks of Manaslu take over.
The scenery has been fascinating the whole morning, huge mountains to the left, 'small' barren hills to the right. The campsite offers equally stunning views. It takes about three hours from Samdo, the short walk that leaves plenty of time for acclimatization and 'lounging' in the afternoon. I wash my feet in the creek and since I feel already freezing cold afterwards I continue with a 'full-body-wash', including a shave. Pieces of ice at the edge of the creek increase my pride. The sun is hot, but a breeze makes it very pleasant.
Lying in the sun warms me again just in time before fog moves in from further down. Temperatures drop quickly and the most comfortable place is the sleeping bag with a hot water bottle at the feet. My body has adjusted well, I am not cold at night and when I touch my fingers after an hour of writing I am surprised that they are freezing cold, they felt warm the whole time. Also my bruised hand has healed very well in just two days.
After dinner I crawl right back into the sleeping bag, falling asleep takes longer than the usual 3 minutes, probably because of the altitude. We are spending the night almost at the height of Europe's tallest mountain!
The two French groups left early, making enough noise to wake me up. The fog is gone, the stars and moon turn the mountains into a fantastic strange light. We get up after they left, pack our things in freezing cold and leave at 600 after a simple but nourishing and excellent tasting noodle soup. It is not as cold as I feared, and since the sun is about to rise it is also unnecessary to walk with torchlight, making this a normal walking day. Sometimes there are reasons to start early (time to turn around in case of problems, too much wind on the pass etc.) but often it scares people unnecessarily. Some people - not in our group, but in general - get a bit paranoid when they have to cross a pass.
I will try to push myself harder today to find out how strong I feel and pass the others after a few minutes. One hour later the sun hits the first summits to the left, slowly turning the range into an orange light as I get higher following the moraine. A frozen lake reflects the mountains, soon afterwards I reach a small plateau with fantastic views. Unfortunately, I have caught up with the French already, which is reason enough to leave soon afterwards. Ahead of me is a gentle slope that widens as it gets higher. A small trail is going over endless fields of rocks and boulders. The contrasting scenery to the left and right - high mountains and the beginning of the Tibetan plateau on the other side - is stunning, but the walk itself is rather dull and seems never-ending. Whenever I reach a little ridge, all I see are more boulders and stones to stumble over.
After another hour I can see a ridge near the horizon, the few colorful dots are hopefully prayerflags marking the pass. When I get there the view is not as spectacular as I hoped and I go on to what looks like a 'second' pass a few minutes ahead. It is absolutely amazing, a huge mountain range goes from left to right, followed by enormous peaks that form the border to Tibet. Behind the Kichke massif the very top of the Lamjung and Annapurna range are visible, with one peak clearly standing out. Glaciers seem to fall down the steep flanks of Cheo Himal on the right, resembling huge frozen waterfalls. The glaciers from the range to north have created several moraines far down in the valley, three of them flow together like rivers. A dark green lake between the moraines stands out of the ochre and white tones.
It will be a steep descent to camp, losing almost 5'000 feet in two hours. First we get down on an unstable gravel slope, then on a very steep trail that follows the ridge high above the moraine. When we reach the moraine we stop for a short break and a mini-lunch. The sun is burning and I soon leave because it is too hot without shade. It is another hour to the campsite on the moraine's left through fields of large black boulders. Then we reach the ablation valley near Bimthang. The views are just breathtaking. A shallow creek meanders in this lovely valley between the moraine and the wall of the main valley. Clouds have built up, but I get to catch a glimpse of the fantastic mountains that rise high in the sky, the flat plain of Bimthang increases the sheerness of Pungi (Kampung Himal).
Bimthang used to be a trading place during the summer months when goods from Larkya Bazaar and from the Marsyangdi valley were exchanged here. Nobody else lived there for the rest of the year, since there were not fields for agriculture or rich meadows for husbandry, and during winter months high snow made travelling and trading impossible. Times change and these days it is tourists that come here - not many but enough to make the three shops and lodges a lucrative business.
If the clouds disperse I will walk back again for the views, but right now I enjoy the warm fire in the lodge of two chatty Gurung girls, Gita and Ganda. They are friends from Tilche and stay here for the tourist season, looking after their parent's lodge and shop.
I will probably take awhile for the porters to arrive. This would be good excuse to spend the night in the lodge where I already reserved a good spot near the fire, successfully defending it against the two porters who are also very eager to sleep here. Later I give up my spot because the tents and my bag have arrived, and because I do not want to spoil the party that - as it turns out - goes on till very, very late.
Nice morning views again; the range to the north has some fog drifting in front of it, making the mountains more impressive. Another 360° panorama. It was cloudy since yesterday evening, and a cold wind destroys all hopes for 'post-pass-warm-holidays'. The fire in the lodge is the best spot to wait for the fog to burn off, and the two girls are fun, though I speak no Nepali and feel a bit stupid.
I would like to walk up to the green glacial lake, but it is not a 5-minutes walk away as we were told. Nevertheless, the views of the glacier from top of the moraine are nice. Two huge peaks of the Kampung Himal rise above the clouds, but haze blurs the views. A white river flows down in a riverbed of white-pebbles, giving it the name Dudh Khola (dud means milk in Nepali).
We cross the bed of the old glacier and enter an enchanting forest on the other side. Huge firs with moss are predominant at first, but the variety of plants grows as we get further down - bushes, ferns, and deciduous trees. The mountain views are fantastic and much better than I expected it. Manaslu stretches high into the sky, the glaciers and moraines come down a long way and end just above the steep wall of the Dudh Khola valley. The mountain looks very different from here, instead of an even pyramid it seems to be a huge square with the two peaks sitting in the middle. It is worth going slowly, the views are so stunning that I stop often and watch for a long time. The hills in front of the Manaslu range add to the diversity of gray glaciers and white summits, a green hill with dark trees stands next to a brown hill with white birches. The peaks slowly disappear in the haze, and we get further down in the valley that becomes narrower. Walking in forests is pleasant after the barren high country. It is overload for the senses: all the colors, fragrances and sounds are overwhelming after days of brown and gray tones where the howling of wind was the only noise. In two days I will probably wish I were back above the timberline, but right now it is a real joy.
The afternoon is a bit dull, but luckily short. Grey clouds hang in the valley, it gets chilly soon. Having crossed the pass was a reminder that this trip will 'soon' be finished, and at camp 'post-pass-depression' comes over me. Luckily it goes away quickly after taking a luke-warm shower and spending an afternoon with biscuits and tea over a good book.
We continue to follow the Dud Khola down to the Marsyangdi valley. There we will hit the popular Annapurna Circuit. The creek slowly turns its color into a blueish gray, at first the walk is interesting because of the different plants and the mountain views, but then its get a bit boring compared to other days. The gorge allows for little cultivation, so the number of houses is small. Except for a guesthouses they are all deserted, people moved back to Tilje or maybe even further down to Pokhara or Kathmandu as winter will arrive soon.
After two hours I get to Tilje, the first larger village since Samdo. The houses are quite elaborate, more wood is used as building material and people pay more attention to its appearance. Landslides and rockfall have destroyed the last part of the trail. Just afterwards a bridge leads to Thonje, a town with a large school just opposite Dharapani. Ang Dami is waiting there, he went ahead yesterday to sort out the gear and organize things for the next week, and our climb. Some of the loads are left behind and will be picked up on the way to Besisahar in a week. Our liaison officer Manjul is leaving here, he was the most pleasant officer I met so far, and he seemed to enjoy the trek. Sometimes these officers are in a strange position, shunned by tourists and the crew, but luckily this was not the case here.
We are on one of the most popular trails in Nepal now. This part of our trek is a much bigger letdown than I expected; the wide trail is littered and full of horseshit, the scenery is not especially nice and the weather not fine either. We pass a few villages with endless shops and guesthouses and stop in Danagyu. Staying in a lodge feel like betrayal, although it is nice and clean it feels like an unnecessary luxury. The crazy drunk guy kind of fits into this day. Somehow such a letdown day belongs to trekking, it helps to appreciate all the other great days we enjoyed and will make the ones ahead of us even better.
The walk in the morning is much nicer than the one yesterday afternoon. We follow the river upstream through forests; the scenery is familiar to me, but if you are here for the first time it is very impressive, at least the tourists I meet on the way are just excited.
When the first peaks of the Annapurna massif rise above the forest, it becomes more interesting, the scenery changes more often now. Some landslides took out large parts of the trail, but now the path is in good condition again. Shortly before Kudo, a nice-looking Tibetan village, the views of Annapurna II are fantastic. A very narrow gorge branches off to the east and goes to Nar, a totally restricted area with some remote villages.
We have met some tourists, but not the hordes of ignorants that you would expect on this popular trek. The stores in Chame have an incredibly selection, you can get everything here. It is a culture shock, but a pleasant one. We all stock up on chocolate, Tang, and every other snack you can think of. The village girls seem to like me and we exchange many, many smiles.
Two portions of fantastic dal baht later we start for a long afternoon. After climbing uphill for some time I meet a monk and am surprised that he speaks Tibetan. An old couple from the village joins us - I feel like the worst part of the Annapurna Circuit is behind us now.
It gets cold after the sun disappears early, making this a day where the purpose of walking is to arrive somewhere and you don't do it just because it is fun. Nonetheless, this day was much more pleasant than yesterday. The views were nice, the scenery was interesting and the villages less out of place. After three weeks of walking I usually have a day or two when I do not enjoy trekking as much as on the other days, but tomorrow I should be fine again.
When we reach Bratang I realize that I camped here about ten years ago. The 'town' still looks a bit poorish from the outside. But the house of the didi's family is very comfortable. She is a 19-year old Gurung girl and has to do all the work since the others are not a big help, This leaves little time for conversation, which is a pity because she is really cool. Originally the village was founded by Tibetans resistance fighters that were attacking Chinese troops from the Nepali side of the border. Nothing reminds me of that past, though.
Most people had a hard time sleeping because horses with bells kept passing just below the lodge till late in the night. I usually wake up easily, but am happy to get up as usual half an hour before breakfast tea. The ridge of the Annapurna range is reaching above the timberline in the form of a narrow orange stripe between the blue sky and the green forest.
The trail is chiseled in a vertical rock face, a very promising start for today. Below the steep smooth curved rockface of Paungda Danga we cross the river and after an hour in a pine forest more and more mountains become visible. Shortly before Pisang we overlook the wide valley with its organ-pipe erosion and white peaks higher up. It was a nice walk in the shade of the forest, but I am happy that we take the high trail now and climb up to Upper Pisang after crossing the blue Marsyangdi river. The fort-like houses with Chulu East behind are a great view. Because most tourists take the lower trail, the town kept its authentic look and not a single brightly painted shop hurts the eye. Most people have left for the lower valleys, making the walk around the village very short. A new monastery is being built, though the old one looks very nice. The ground floor is used only a few times a year, most notably for Losar dances (Tibetan New Year festival in February). The first floor is a gallery with views down to the dancing room. Above it is the gompa, it is rather small and filled with modern bauble and souvenirs from Bangkok that do not fit in.
After a short descent we are back in the forest and pass a long mani wall. High above on the right is a white monastery. It looks like a strenuous and long climb, but once you get going, zigzagging up the hill is easy and fast. When I reach the three white chortens I am surprised to see not only the gompa but also a large village. I thought Ghyaru was much further away.
The village is similar to Upper Pisang, but the houses are built together much closer and the town seems very 'untouristy'. It is fun to walk through the narrow alleys looking for interesting things. The gompa on the upper part of the town is locked and while looking for the caretaker I hear the murmuring of people praying. I climb a long and steep ladder - of course only after unsuccessfully calling for somebody, I am trying to be polite and also I do not want to meet a snappish watchdog up there. In a small building on the roof are a few monks and a nun I met in Chame reciting texts. They read them from scripts, everybody seems to have a different book. It is probably also a ceremony for protection and a whole liturgy is being read.
When I want to go back down I find it almost impossible to use the ladder. It is too steep, the notches are too small - I would probably lose my balance and fall down 10 feet to the ground. Luckily the house owner sees me and lets me climb a small fence on the roof, so I can take a regular staircase and walk to the guesthouse. By now everybody has arrived and we decide to stay in the nice lodge because there is no campground. That is why most groups take the lower trail, and for some strange reason even individual trekkers prefer the lower route.
I walk up to the gompa an hour later and an older man is there to let me in. The monastery is much nicer than the one in Upper Pisang, but the caretaker is not very knowledgeable. After answering many questions in Tibetan he explains that the Panchen Lama is the head of the Nyingma sects - which casts doubts on all the previous answers he has given. On the way back I meet the Tenzing, Ang Dami and Bharat, and walk around the village with them. It is their first time in this village, and they say 'now we are tourists, too, and want to look at everything'. That is really cool, and after twenty minutes Bharat finds a nice house where we can warm up in the kitchen.
The family is originally from Tibet but fled in the 1960s and settled down here. One of the children lives in Germany, but I do not know him (it's a small world and it wouldn't have been surprising to have met his son). It is great to sit around the fire and talk to the couple and their two grand-children. When I run out of Tibetan, the conversation switches into Nepali and somebody translates. These 'kitchen-experiences' are new to me, spending evenings like that has made the trek much more interesting because the time in camp is usually not very exciting. Of course it would be more fun without any language barrier at all, but I am doing fine with a little smalltalk and often somebody can do the translation. After some cups of butter tea we say good-bye, and I get back to the lodge.
It is rather chilly, even inside the lodge, so after hot soup it is a good idea to go to bed early.
I hoped for a fantastic sunrise - I still remember getting up early in Braga some years ago - but it is freezing and not worth it: Sunrise passes without illuminating the mountains. I guess we were really spoiled with fine weather if I am complaining about things like that. The Annapurna massif does look fantastic, one huge peak is connected to the next one by a fine ridge.
The village looks very nice in the morning sun, steep barren fields surround it and the white Pisang Peak rises just behind. Many people think it is the easiest trekking peak in the area, after looking closely at its steep flank just before the summit I really, really hope that they are wrong. I want Chulu Far East not to be any steeper. Prayerflags higher up indicate a religious monument, but I am not too keen on exploring and stay on the main path. The mountains are incredible, Annapurna II, IV, III and Gangapurna are very close, further north is Tilicho. In addition to the mountains we see the rugged Marsyangdi valley with forests, washed out canyons and the barren mountains at the far end where Thorung La crosses over to Muktinath. To the south is the sheer carved rockface of Paungda Danga, Lamjung Himal and at the horizon is a peak that resembles Himal Chuli.
On the traverse to Nawal we pass some girls selling biscuits and cokes up here in the middle of nowhere. Hopefully they are is busier in the high season, only few trekkers take this trail and they are probably not craving for biscuits. A chorten announces the village; situated on a flat valley confined by organ-pipe eroded walls and high peaks in the background, it is one of the many fantastic views of today. The ridge of Chulu East does not look too difficult, but I guess mountains always look easy from miles away. The old gompa is not very interesting, it has been replaced by a newer one that also serves as monastic school, and maybe all the nice statues and thangkas were moved to there.
We leave the Annapurna Circuit now and take the trail to Chulu. On the way there we pass a village that is on no map, it seems completely deserted but the colorful prayerflags indicate that at least three houses are still inhabited. Then we pass the most beautiful chortens of the entire trek, they are very well-kept and built in a style often found north of Muktinath: white washed with paintings and red wooden frames. In a little sidevalley lies the village Chulu, the creek that flows by comes from two waterfalls further up where we will put up our camp. On the way down I hear much laughter, it comes from young monks who are carrying large trunks of firewood to their school. The large building is a branch of a Kagyü monastery in Kathmandu. Hopefully we will have an extra day before flying out and I can spend some time here.
The lunchspot is great once again; a creek, red bushes and birch trees in front of the few Chulu houses with large yellow haystacks on their roofs. A canyon with firs on its top rises beyond the village, the steep flanks of Annapurna III and the white pyramid-shaped summit of Gangapurna are in the background. The light is not very good, otherwise this would be a potential 'picture of the year'.
After a good lunch at this lovely spot it is just one more hour to waterfall camp. The hike along the Chegaji Khola is lovely, the steep and barren hills and snowridges are quite a contrast to the pleasant atmosphere in the enchanting forest down here. The porters are a bit grumpy because we do not stop at the first campsite and go on for a little longer until we camp close to the two partly frozen waterfalls. But their faces light up when they see the small stone hut and a huge dry tree in the fireplace.
The sunset on the Annapurnas is a fantastic view and a reminder to put on some warm clothes. It is really chilly soon and we all gather round the large bonfire. The group will be splitting tomorrow: Dagmar, Tracey and Lizzy will go down to Braga; Dana, John, Tom, Jamie and I attempt the peak and will set up camp at around 5'000m. Spending an evening around a cozy campfire is a perfect end of a great trekking. Somehow the group never became close-knitted, but we had a nice time together and avoided any fights or arguments. For some the novelty has worn off after three weeks and grumpy moments happen more often than in the beginning. It is -10° C, but the cold is driven away by warm clothes, the fire, hot soup and excellent dal baht. And once you are in the sleeping bag you are warm anyway. Well, except for the damned 'latrine-calls'. My equipment-list is almost perfect but still has room for improvement: Tang powder, green tea leaves and a pee bottle will definitely be on the next version.
All fatigue after the first day on the Annapurna Circuit has disappeared: the last two days on the high trail were very rewarding: the views were awesome, the cultural experiences plentiful, now I feel I could go on for many more weeks. Or as Tilman put it more eloquently:
"I felt I could go on like this forever,
that life had little better to offer
than to march day after day in an unknown country
to an unattainable goal."
My indecision whether to attempt the summit or not is also gone: I am excited to try it, and the few things that do worry me - steep slopes, walking on ice, never hhaving climbed a mountain before, the altitude, and mostly my freight of heights - will be dealt with when (and if) it is necessary.
Jamie plans to go to base camp today, then climb another 200 meters to high base camp the next day as an easy day for acclimatization and gaining strength. Then on the third day we will go for the summit of Chulu Far East (6'060 m). At least that is the rough plan, if necessary we can change it quickly because we are not a huge group and our loads are relatively small.
Getting up is made easier by Jamie allowing us to stay in the tent until the sun reaches the valley. Clouds make the mountains more impressive but photographing impossible, soon afterwards the clouds also cover the sky on 'our' side of the valley. Most of the porters will go down to Braga or Hongde. I would have preferred if the women also came on the climb, I usually do not like things that are divided between gender lines (well, except for soccer and a million other things), but that is the way it is and 'the men set off for the mountain'...
A small trail climbs the hill near the two waterfalls, from then on it is a long climb up to the crags high above us. I go deliberately slowly, trying not to sweat or breathe heavily. We will have to walk up to a ridge, somewhere behind in a gentle valley lies the camp. The good trail makes it a straightforward climb with great views, but soon also Pisang Peak is disappearing in clouds. Our destination, the ridge, seems to get farther away the higher we climb. The wind is getting colder. Some tricky gravel slopes need to be crossed but then we reach a calm spot where we wait for the others. Base camp is only a few minutes away and we decide to have pack lunch there. Very light snowfall starts while we are on the way, it gets stronger but visibility is fine and we did not plan to do anything this afternoon anyway. In fact, the bad weather is a good excuse for naps before dinner.
To find a small tent at base camp is a surprise, since none of the porters passed us. It belongs to an English couple that summitted Chulu Far East this morning. They actually planned on staying at high camp and climb more peaks in the coming days, but a wild cat stole all the food they had hidden under some rocks, and then the bad weather moved in. They will go down tomorrow.
Porters are surprisingly fast and before it gets uncomfortable out there we can put up the tents before the snowfalls gets stronger and fog moves in. Lying in the sleeping bag, hearing the snow on the tent and an occasional glimpse out of the tent make this a very comfortable and cozy afternoon. Jamie must has given orders to Tenba to fatten us up for the climb: after chia and noodle soup for teatime we get vegetable soup, spaghetti and beans for dinner, and hot peas for dessert. Needless to say, I have overeaten a little.
When I try to fall asleep I feel the effects of altitude; breathing becomes more irregular and the overfull stomach does not help, on the contrary. But after half an hour later I am sleeping.
The clouds are getting less dense in the morning but it is still snowing when we get up. Actually I do not really get up since Jamie, Ang Dami have slept in the dining tent. What a luxury to enjoy breakfast in the sleeping bag. Now this is what I call a holiday: breakfast in bed!
Jamie's loud calculation on how many days it would take to walk out are a bit worrying: I was not aware that bad weather effects the airstrip in Hongde; if it gets too wet it will be closed for a day or two. Hopefully we will be lucky and get to do the peak and be back in Kathmandu as planned. Usually I would not mind but I really want to meet some friends who were not there a month ago.
I go for a short walk in the morning, but thick fog makes the tent a more luring place and I am soon back in the sleeping bag. It seems to clear up a few times, blue sky and the sun are visible for short moments but then the clouds move in again. After dozing the whole morning I feel a little guilty about my laziness. After lunch I definitely need some exercise and start looking for the cat that stole the food. Chances of finding it are tiny, especially because the footprints that were visible in the morning are less clear now. I set out for some small caves above camp, carefully walking up a slope with slippery boulders and slates. There I traverse over a similar slope, glad to have brought the two ski poles. But the tracks disappear, and the caves higher up would require a longer hike than planned. But at least I get great views of Chulu Far East appearing out of the mist.
I over-eat less than yesterday and have gotten used to the altitude. I fall asleep fast and enjoying a good sleep.
The scenery at night is beautiful; the sky is completely black and the stars seem even brighter than usual. It was the coldest night so far, - 20° C, thanks to Tom's extra sleeping bag not even my feet got cold. Take note to buy new sleeping bag. The views of the mountains in the morning are breathtaking, the play of colors is simply superb. The snow crunches pleasantly under my boots, and the crisp air is refreshing. With good clothes it is very nice and the sun hits soon.
The plan is not to go to high camp but a little further, up the steep scree slope and camp on the col. That is the small notch in the rocks where the snowy part of the peak starts. Two sherpas and two porters will carry loads up and then go back to base camp. We climb up a ridge first, there it becomes relatively flat and easy walking as most snow has melted already in the warm sun. The views of the Annapurna range and Gangapurna peak are getting better the higher we climb. After lunch near the normal high camp we start climbing the scree slope towards the col. It is a hard and difficult climb. The rocks are loose, the slope is steep, and breathing is not getting easier, either. The porters show their skills, and although one complains of headache they are up there many minutes ahead of us.
When I reach the 'pass', the views are sensational: Chulu East is the closest peak to the west, its glacier winds down into a brown barren valley that turns into a desert-like landscape of large ochre mountains with some ice on their ridges and summits. To the right is Chulu Far East, the backside of the ridge that looked so gentle from base camp has turned into something much, much steeper than I actually feel comfortable with. I expected a technically easy but tough walk with maybe a little snow on some spots. But this looks more like serious mountaineering. Of course a real climber would disagree, please bear in mind this is the first time I set foot on a mountain. Maybe I should have read Jamie's description before:
'The Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) has classified 18 peaks in Nepal as 'trekking peaks', a misleading name because all involve climbing. Ranging from 5650-6500m (18,537-21,325ft) some are, however, appropriate heights to combine within a trekking program. "Limited bureaucracy" peaks would be a better name.'
Well, climbing is still a day away and for now I enjoy this absolutely stunning campsite. We set up our two tents on the little plateau and make sure they cannot be blown away. We shovel snows for melting and cooking. Not much else needs to be done. The wind gets stronger and since the tent is the coziest place, we almost miss the superb sunset. The gray clouds down in the valleys are barely visible because it is dark there already, the largest peaks like Manaslu, Ngadi Chuli and Himal Chuli seem to flow above everything thing and glow in a pink light.
Then it gets really cold outside, the wind picks up and shakes the tents, it is well below minus 10° C outside. Inside the tent it is very comfortable: Jamie is cooking at the other end, the sound of the stove and the smells create a cozy atmosphere. I expected a more cramped and nervous atmosphere at these camps.
After great vegetarian chilli soup for me and tasty smelling chicken stew and pasta for the others it is bedtime already. Nobody is sick from altitude, but it does effect people's moods. There is some commotion in our neighbors' tent. Tom has a hard time sleeping at altitude and swears occasionally, rumors are that Dana had problems with the pee-bottle. Except for the effects from the bean soup, it is quiet and peaceful in our tent.
Falling asleep is very difficult. Whenever I am dozing off I wake up half a minute later gasping for breath. The first few times it gives me a very eerie feeling, but then I am getting used to it and do not feel like suffocating any more. I thought that breathing problems are normal, but people sometimes take Diamox against it. My breathing becomes more and more regular and two hours later I am asleep and do not wake up again - excluding the normal toilet breaks, of course.
The two times I get up at night I stare up the slope to the summit, wondering if I will really be standing up there or not. Somehow my optimism has waned, but it is not completely gone - at least not yet.
I do not even want to attempt describing the morning views, because it is impossible. At first there are only black silhouettes of the peaks against a light blue sky, then a fine orange line appears at the horizon where the sun is about to rise, the line becomes brighter and larger, slowly turning the delicate looking black silhouettes into white giants.
Jamie has been up for awhile melting snow and preparing breakfast. After real muesli we start getting ready. Jamie gives instructions and helps us put on all the gear, the others have more experience and need less or no advice. I take the first few clumsy steps wearing crampons. The slope becomes steeper gradually which leaves enough time to become more confident. Walking uphill feels comfortable and foolproof, the ice axe is used as additional security. Manaslu and Annapurna I, the two highest peaks in the area, stand out above the dozens of other impressive peaks. After a few minutes our tents are just tiny dots between the glaciers and peaks. As I look down I realize how steep this 'hill' is and can feel a lump in my stomach - which probably does not come from the expired Mars bar I ate yesterday.
Then we reach the first rope-section - Jamie quickly gets up a hundred meters, fixes a rope and we cling in our rope-handle. Usually it is two people on the rope, and then it is just hard work to get up there, pulling yourself and walking up takes a lot of energy. I am usually strong at altitude but like everybody else I am breathless when I reach the end of the rope. There we cling on to another rope and wait until the group is back together. This leaves plenty of time for rest and the heartbeat drops to a normal rate quickly. This 'strategy' also gives us enough time to enjoy the magnificent views. The Annapurna massif is simply spectacular. The glacier from Chulu East is equally stunning.
The camp becomes smaller and smaller, the slope steeper and steeper, yet the strange feeling (probably anxiety mixed with excitement) has waned immensely. I simply enjoy this without worrying anymore. The closer we get to the summit, the worse the weather gets. Fog is coming from the Marsyangdi valley, it is not dense but hides the Annapurna massif in the west. While waiting before the final rope on the summit ridge I have enough time to think and decide that I am actually not too unhappy that the valley deep, deep down below is not visible. It makes it easier for people like me who were afraid of heights until two hours ago...
The valley to the northeast looks very barren, it is probably the restricted Nar valley. Although there are only two villages I see it as a possible destination for the next trip, thanks to an old map from Tilman that shows a pass to Tangbe in Upper Mustang. The people are of Tibetan origin and developed a special dialect so their unpopular neighbors from Manang will not understand them.
I follow the footprints on the narrow ridge. A gap in the ridge (probably a crevasse, though I really do not know much about mountains to be sure) makes me doubt my sanity, but with a jump I get across it easily. Jamie went ahead and fixed ropes at the summit, too. I rest on a small plateau for a minute and get on another rope to climb the last meters to the peak. Gosh, it is steep on both sides. I reach the summit, 6'060 m. It is a very strange feeling to be at the highest point and have nothing around me. Dana comes after me and the whole group spends some minutes together on the summit. Nobody is very talkative and we all hang on to our own thoughts.
I surely do not look graceful as I stand up for a picture, but I did reach the peak. Of course it would have been nicer with good views, but the fog does not bother me at all. The views towards the Tibetan plateau were great, and the views from col camp were so good that they cannot be much better from up here. This is probably a happy moment even for Jamie who has already been on 8'000 m peaks, since he had two unsuccessful attempts on this mountain before.
After some minutes we start descending, and now I realize why - though I was very happy - I did not ffeel jubilant: Getting down the mountain is also part of the climb, and it is the more difficult part. Walking down that summit ridge seems impossible. The idea of 'abseiling' (walking down backwards, letting the rope slide through your hand to control the speed) seems even scarier, at first. Once I am on the rope I even enjoy it, putting all my weight back and pushing myself off the mountain with my legs is comfortable and easy. I get a little too wanton and miss the narrow ridge once, but somehow manage to get back on the 'trail'. After the plateau, the crevasse needs to be crossed again, Jamie said "you will know what to do when you get there" and really, there are not that many options. I let loose some rope and take a big jump backwards. Then I get to the end of the rope where Dana is waiting. Seeing Jamie undo all the ropes and then walk down the narrow trail with only two ice axes is almost too much to watch.
Some parts of the descent are done with a rope, some parts we walk. I really like the 'abseiling' and think I am doing pretty well, going down is fast and easy. Walking downhill is more difficult than going up; it requires much attention because it is easy to trip over the crampons or hitting yourself. And of course with every step you want to get a good foothold in the frozen snow and that is quite tiring. I can feel my leg muscles after a few dozens steps already. There is probably a better technique, but I have no experience. For a second I am not careful, slip and try to get a grip with my other foot and the ice axe. The first attempt with the ice-axe hits my hand, I slip a meter, then the ice-axe is in the snow and stops me sliding. All this happens in a second and I do not fully realize what happened - or could have happened - until some minutes later.
Tom did not wait for the rest of the group after the first rope, hopefully he will be fine and find the way in the fog. Our way of climbing with all the ropes is safer, but it does take time to fix the rope, wait for everybody to get off the rope, untie the rope and then Jamie climbing down without a rope. Fog and wind makes these stops less pleasant than on the way up, but the windproof clothes keep me warm, and not even my feet get cold in the plastic boots that Jamie lent me. A pair of long underpants, windproof pants, a shirt, fleece and windproof jacket are warm enough. After about four more ropes we are almost 'at home'. Jamie tells us to go on and though I am extremely satisfied to get to camp - a tear or two rolling down my cheek - I am too worried to enjoy it because Jamie does not show up for many, many minutes. Then he appears out of the mist, rolling up the rope took some time. He has done an incredible job on the mountain (well actually on the whole trip), his experience made everyone feel secure and it all went very smoothly.
We saw Ang Dami and three porters arrived at camp while we were climbing up. The porters are about to leave now without loads. We do not know Jamie's plans and have a hard time convincing the porters to wait some more minutes. They spent some hours up here and are cold, though they could have sat in the tents and cover with all the warm sleeping bags. It is about three o'clock, and we decide to go down to base camp. We set a new record packing up and then head down the scree slope. We walk fast and get down the nasty part quickly. I would probably get lost in the fog on my own, and did not remember the way to base camp to be so long. Eventually we see the tents in the valley below us.
Apart from breakfast, a cereal bar and half a chocolate bar I have not eaten anything the entire day, my water bottle is not empty either. I simply never felt hungry or thirsty. And I realized that I had hit myself with the ice-axe only after taking the gloves off at col camp. Tenba waits for us with hot chai ready. Having such thoughtful people in your crew is what makes trekking so relaxing, since everything is easy and comfortable. A few minutes later I enjoy the hot noodle soup, the kitchen crew seems to be able to read minds. I did not realize that this is just a snack and that regular dinner is still coming. Sadly the excellent dal baht is merely dessert and not the main course (as it deserved to be).
Tom got down safely and left several hours ago. He was heading down to Hongde, probably because he does not like sleeping at altitude. Dana and John are also thinking about continuing, but it is getting dark already. They will start very early tomorrow, go to Braga first and then come to Hongde. Tom got lost in the darkness but with some luck found the way to Nawal and stayed in a lodge there.
I lie awake forever before falling asleep, which is surprising after such a hard day. But the impressions are so strong that whenever I think about it the adrenaline makes sleep impossible. I wake up several times during the night and lie awake, seeing some scenes of the climb over and over again. It was absolutely fantastic, though something I will probably never do again. [When I type it in a few weeks later, I am not so sure about the last sentence anymore.]
I am undecided whether to get up early for a detour via Braga, or to enjoy a lazy morning and head to Hongde directly. I wake up early and hear John packing, but it is too cozy in the sleeping bag, looking at the beautiful sunrise, indulging in some leftover snacks and going back to dozing. I skip Braga since I was there some years ago and it probably did not get nicer in the meantime.
After breakfast in the sunshine with great views, Jamie and I take down the tents, pack everything up and clean the campsite as good as possible. I hurry to get down, hoping to spend some time in Chulu and maybe visit the monastic school afterwards. The views are stunning, red and ochre "dunes" (in fact it is barren solid rock, but the play of colors makes it look like sand) are a nice contrast to the endless range of mountains ahead of me. From Pisang Peak to Annapurna I the mountains cover almost the whole. The trail over steep gravel slopes that caused an uncomfortable feeling a few days ago seems like broad freeway now. Running down the hill is easy.
As it hit the trail going down into the lovely valley, I notice many birds near the waterfalls. Swarms of crows and a pair of birds of pray are circling above the same spot. They disappear in a cliff and I put my camera away. Two minutes later I see two shadows on the trail, two different eagles pass 5 meters above my head. A goat fell down the cliff and is a welcome feast.
I quickly get down to the creek and enjoy a nice walk through the forest. The views of the waterfall, the Chulu massif and its peaks are even better when you can see the peak you climbed just a day ago. I miss a fork and have to bushwhack along the creek for some minutes. Apart from a few scratches on my neck I get back to the main trail safely twenty minutes later after some jumps across the river. The scenery is enchanting with its contrasts: the gurgling creek, the pine trees, then the steep rock faces in ochre tones and the snow ridges further up that lead to the peaks. The view down the valley is equally exciting, especially from Chulu village. Three white chortens with water-driven prayerwheels overlook the few houses with haystacks, a whitewashed and redframed chorten stands at the town's entrance, the steep face of Annapurna IV and the peak of Gangapurna rise behind it. It is one of the prettiest villages I have ever seen, the colorful trees and the river make it even nicer.
Only two old Tibetan ladies are in the village, I hoped to spend more time here. Therefore I start climbing up to visit the monastic school, it sounds better than sitting around in Hongde. While I am walking up the plateau where the school is, I hear and then see a dozen kids running down the hill. Nobody is around by the time I get up there, but then I hear some talking and find 4 young boys sitting on the porch near the tallest building. The oldest kid is wearing a red robe and speaks very good English. Since it is very cold, the monks are allowed to wear casual clothes during the day, the traditional chuba is mandatory only during ceremonies and other religious activities.
33 young monks get their education here in this 'branch', the main monastery is in Kathmandu. Most of them are from the area (Manang, Nawal, Muktinath, Upper Mustang). A few of them are from Tibet - sending children to schools abroad is totally illegal and the Chinese have recently started punishing parents when they found out about it. Not surprisingly, the concept of 'nationality' is not that clear to the kids and some of the kids from Nupri claim to be Tibetans, not Nepali. Probably their parents fled from Tibet after the invasion, maybe there is an area close to the border with the same name.
They hold a puja twice a day, it is one more hour until they meet in the assembly room for praying. Since Hongde should be easy to reach, I decide to stay and watch at least the beginning of the ceremony. More and more kids show up, change into their red robes and gather around me. Tourists do not come here that often. This would be a really good place to learn Tibetan, the children are witty and good teachers. Only three adults stay with them: the head monk is 31 and oversees the religious activities, and older Tibetan who studied in Varanasi University teaches Sanskrit, and another guy works as cook and janitor.
A gong announces the upcoming ceremony, a few of the latecomers run into the chapel just in time. I am allowed to sit inside and watch, though I am really quiet I am a welcome distraction nevertheless. It is a large and chilly room where the monks sit in two rows facing each other. The older kids are further up near the head monk, recite the texts by heart and play the instruments. The younger monks sit near the door, try to follow the others and consult the scripts more often, or just sit and watch the others. The offerings on the altar are changed twice a day during the course of the puja, the three monks who sit separate from the others are obviously proud of their job.
After an hour one monk is taking me to the kitchen where it is much warmer. It is simply impossible to refuse the buttertea, and I even let it be refilled more than the three times which politeness dictates. Butter tea is less threatening after surviving Chulu Far East. The older teacher who spent much time in India is giving lessons in Sanskrit and Tibetan. He fled from Tibet in 1964, spent 12 years in India and has not been in Tibet since then. His father and brother still live in U-Tsang (central Tibet), a few days away from the border. He wants to visit his family but will never ever get a visa, he will try to sneak across the border and hopes to reach his village without meeting a check-post or police. It is incredible that despite all the hardship these people remain so free of bitter feelings. The friendliness and hospitality are mind-blowing: here I am, a complete stranger and they invite me into their house and offer food and drink, and more important: they make me feel welcome.
I have spent almost half a day here and should head down to Hongde before dusk. A steep trail goes directly to the airstrip, luckily the teacher walks with me for some minutes and shows me the best trail. It is a tricky path on washed out freestone, but since it used to get supplies up to the school it is impossible to get lost. I shoo away some strange birds when I walk across the forest, since they cannot fly they run away through the scrubs and make as much noise as large animals. Then I hit the flat valley floor, pass a large village to the left and what looks like a monastery straight ahead. I knock on the door and ask for the key, a really nice and friendly girl named Samden takes a break from dinner and shows me the private chapel. It is not richly decorated, but very well kept and in regular use.
The thought of having to cross the Marsyangdi river only occurs to me when I stand above the wide river and cannot see a bridge. Hoping on good luck I follow it and a few minutes later find a bridge finished 4 August 2000. Needless to say, the old bridge further down does not look very trustworthy. I hear somebody yelling as I get to the airstrip but cannot see anyone and continue straight to the village. There I see Bharat who thought I got lost because everybody else arrived at the lodge some time ago. After joking around with him and the didi (a Tibetan girl he is trying to set me up with once again) and changing news from the last few days we go to our guesthouse.
The last dinner is always something special and I am glad that the kitchen crew is giving us a treat of local cuisine. Black dal, mixed vegetable curry, pickled radish and chicken. It tastes amazing. For dessert we get chocolate cake that is even more delicious than the one in Samdo.
The first airplane is for locals only, after landing in Pokhara the same plane will come back to pick us up. I skip regular breakfast, have a few cups of buttertea in the kitchen instead and talk to Manangpas who stop by on their way to have glass of rakshi. A 70-year old speaks proper Lhasa-dialect and I manage to have a short but witty conversation with him.
The first flight takes off just a few meters before the runway ends. Three more tourists want to come on our flight, because they are sick (or pretend to be in the case of a couple from Israel) and could not make it over the pass. But since the runway is short only a limited amount of weight can be taken, one tourist is turned back by the pilot. I feel sorry for her, it is sad to see her walk away as we take off.
Tropical temperatures in Pokhara are the first thing to make you like this place. The great bakeries come second. The lukewarm bathtub did not live up to my expectations at first, but when I see the dark gray water afterwards, the knowledge of being clean again makes up for the missing centigrades. I spend most of the afternoon in a nice cafe at the lakeside, lying in a deck-chair enjoying a good Indian lunch and catching up with my diary.
The sun disappears early behind the hills which subdues the colors of the lake and creates a tranquil atmosphere. It is a stark contrast - just 48 hours ago we were 5'000 meters higher in a desert of snow and ice, now we are in the tropics.
The flight from Hongde was short but in these 25 minutes we saw everything of the last four weeks in 'fast motion'. We fly above deep gorges, see high peaks, even Manaslu and Larkya La, then the narrow valleys, in the end the green rice terraces and the red houses we saw when we started in the low lands. Yet it all seems unreal because flying over the miniature landscape goes so fast and it looks like a world you are not really part of. It is a beautiful scenery, but devoid of the close encounters with the people who - to a large extent - make the Himalayas such a special place. That is the biggest reward of trekking.