Getting High in the Himalayas – Nepal – Chapter 10

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Namche Bazaar (3440m) – Phortse Tenga (3680m) – Dhole (4200m) – Macchermo (4470m) – Gokyo (4790m)

 Date = 19 – 22 March

P1020627 (2)A crumbling path rises vertically behind Namche Bazaar.  Angtu groans loudly at intervals, grinning widely, as they climb 400 metres in under an hour, overtaking a steady stream of panting, less acclimatised trekkers.

Angtu:  Not easy!

D:  It’s not a race.

L:  Of course it’s a race.

They reach the top and stand there gasping.

D:  Are you alright?

L:  No.  I can’t breathe.

D:  Is it the altitude?

L:  No.  It’s the views.

Ahead in the distance rise the iconic black pyramid of Everest, the twin peaks of Lhotse and the sublimely gorgeous cone of Ama Dablam.   D&L stumble on across an undulating grassy plateau, muttering like lunatics.

D:  Awesome.

L:  Ridiculous.

D:  Epic.

L:  Extraordinary.

D:  Stupendous.

L:  Amazing.

D:  Where’s Phurba?

Angtu:  He took the low path.  He’s seen it all before.

A helicopter is parked outside the €300/night Everest View Hotel.  They pick a table on the terrace and order probably the world’s most justifiably expensive hot chocolate.

P1020642 (2)All day they walk towards Ama Dablam pointing haughtily skywards, a backdrop to stupas, prayer-flags and picturesque yaks.  It photo-bombs their pictures.  It demands to be admired.  It’s the most beautiful peak they’ve ever seen.

At the top of a long flight of ancient stone steps clinging to the steep mountainside, is the village of Mong, balanced on a ridge just shy of 4,000 metres.   Here they find Phurba, sitting on a wall, smiling and fiddling with his phone.  Stopping here for lunch, they observe a pair of British guides gathering their group of gap-yars.  The guides bark orders, treating their charges like children, not to forget their belongings, not to be late.  They outline the itinerary for the afternoon and following days, which is far more ambitious than D&L’s.  Angtu makes a face.

Angtu:  Too high, too quick.  They could get sick.   Could need an Everest taxi.

L:  What d’you mean a taxi?  We haven’t seen a road for two weeks.

Angtu:  A heli.  There are many helicopters working every day here.

L:  How many?

Angtu:  Maybe 7 companies – 25 helis in all.

D:  For millionaire sightseeing?

Angtu:  And deliveries.  And medical evacuation – every day there’s rescues for people who get sick.

Trekker travel insurance in Nepal demands a USD $750 excess to be paid if a helicopter evacuation is required.  It’s to act as a deterrent.  Tour operators routinely walk their groups on a tight schedule, designed to allow most people to acclimatise – most, but not all.  Those needing more time are left behind, or struggle on, taking serious – potentially fatal – risks to their health.  As many trekkers in Nepal are on a “once in a lifetime experience”, they become determined to reach their goal whatever the consequences.   Once altitude sickness sets in, the only remedy is to head downhill – fast.  In a region with no roads, this means a “heli”.

P1030436 (2)Often, pushing trekkers too high too fast is simply down to a battle by tour companies to offer competitive prices and so a tightly timed itinerary.  Sometimes though, the reasons are a lot more sinister.   There are scams where companies deliberately cause their clients to become ill, with altitude sickness or food poisoning, and then call in a helicopter which delivers the trekker to a private hospital.  There are plenty of winners – kickbacks for all – the trekking company and guide, the helicopter company and pilot, and the private hospital.  There is also one big loser.  The trekker gets a curtailed holiday, a life-threatening illness, a helicopter ride, a stint in hospital, and a gigantic bill.

The group set off ahead of them, setting a fast pace as they have further to go.  D&L work their way slowly down a steep path.  A wave of Hindi pop music rises up from below, getting ever louder and closer until it crashes over them.  The source is an elderly porter, his straw doko empty on his back, his face blank, dance music blaring deafeningly from his pocket.  L&D greet him, shouting “namaste” over the noise.  Angtu and Phurba ignore him.

L:  Have you noticed that Nepali interaction is the opposite to British?

D:  In what way?

L:  Nepalis are really friendly, but they don’t talk unnecessarily.  If we’re passing other people walking, and there’s nothing to say, they say nothing at all, not even a greeting.  But if there is something to say, they launch right in – they don’t bother saying hello.   There’s no formalities.  And when talking they seem immediately comfortable, laughing and joking and smiling readily.

D:  You’re right.  Whereas us Brits are tremendously good at the formalities, with lots of hellos and excuse mes and thank yous and sorrys, but pretty hopeless at genuine conversation!

***

The following morning, the sky dawns blue.  Their room is cosy, but cold.  L snuggles deeper into her sleeping bag.

L:  Bruh!  What’s the temperature?

D:  4°C

P1020729 (2)Birch and rhododendron woods line the path, moss hanging from tree branches and the river is occasionally visible far far below.  Frozen waterfalls and torrents of snow and ice stripe the cliffs overhead and cross the trail, incongruous in the strong sunshine and soft woodland.

The forest dwindles out at around 4000m.  This is the treeline.  They’ll see no more vegetation much over knee-height for almost a fortnight.   The little there is, mostly the juniper shrub, is under serious threat, having been gathered for firewood for decades.  Without the juniper’s soil-binding roots, hillsides become eroded and barren.  Juniper grows very slowly, and in these harsh high altitude conditions it’s cold and windy and dry with only a 3 month growing season.  It’s not enough time to recover the damage – up here it takes 100 years for a juniper bush to grow a mere 4cm diameter trunk.

Dhole spreads comfortably on a two-tier open shelf, with mountains rising behind, and the ground ahead dropping sharply into the river ravine.  One of the region’s three kerosene depots is in this village, ensuring that expedition groups don’t use shrub-wood for fuel.

Despite arriving at 10.30am, they are now at 4,200m and have gained enough altitude today.   They sit in the sun, sipping hot tea.

Angtu:  How are you feeling?  All good?  No headache?

D:  We’re good.

L:  What actually is it?  Altitude sickness, I mean.  AMS.

D:  Acute Mountain Sickness.  Two things.  The higher you go, the less oxygen there is in the air, and so in your blood.  Which is what makes you breathless and tired.

L:  Makes sense.  And the other thing?

D:  The higher you go, the lower the air pressure, which means that liquid in your body sort of oozes out into your lungs, or your brain – a pulmonary or cerebral edema – either of which could kill you.

L:  Nice.  But by not going too high too fast, our bodies adjust as we go along, right?  If we give them time to?

D:  Yes – but it’s not an exact science.  Ideally we shouldn’t sleep more than 300 metres higher than we slept the night before.  If one goes way over this, take a rest day to acclimatise.  Walk high but sleep low.  Drink lots of water – dehydration doesn’t help and the air gets drier the higher you go.

P1020742 (2)L:  And what are the symptoms?  Apart from feeling tired and breathless.

D:  OK.  Headaches.  Dizziness.  Feeling sick.  Not being hungry.  Not sleeping.  Grumpiness.

L:  And how do I know if I’ve got an edema?

D:  If it’s in your lungs, you’ll cough a lot and spit pink.  If it’s in your brain, you’ve probably got a splitting headache and you act drunk – malcoordinated, confused, irrational.

L:  What about taking drugs – like Diamox?

D:  Diamox isn’t a cure for AMS.  It just makes you breathe better, but if you’ve got other symptoms it won’t hide them or make them go away.

L:  So what are your symptoms now?

D:  None.  I’m happy and hungry.  You?

L:  I’m happy and hungry too.

They rinse trail dust from their clothes in a bucket.  In a sauna-warm tin hut with transparent corrugated plastic roof they find a smart shower tray and a hosepipe dispensing tepid water.  As the afternoon cloud builds over the peaks, the temperature drops.  At 5pm, the yak-dung stove is lit in the centre of the dining room and chairs are pulled close around it.  Angtu is happy, having spent the afternoon with friends, other guides passing through the village, drinking home-made wine.  L&D play cards and listen to melodious Nepali chat and laughter drift over them.

***

L:  So?

D checks the temperature.   Despite her thick sleeping bag and the heavy duvet, L has slept in all her clothes including her woollen hat.

D:  Minus 1.

L:  Minus 1?

D:  Minus 1.  Happy Birthday.

L:  Oh.

L sits up in bed.  D has bought gifts in Namche Bazaar and has stuffed them into a sock – a donkey bell, a bangle, a pendant and some prayer flags.  L is delighted.

Later D lights a candle, hands around Snickers bars and with Angtu and Phurba sings Happy Birthday – all of them looking acutely uncomfortable.  It’s a sweet gesture.

Their walk to Macchermo only takes a couple of hours, but they’ve gained another 270m, so they stop to acclimatise.  It’s not enough activity for D who heads off for a walk alone towards the bowl at the head of the valley. P1020769 (3)

L:  I was so worried!  Where on earth have you been?

D: For a walk.  I said so.

L:  You were gone for ever!

D:  For just over an hour.

L:  But it’s dangerous!  There are yetis!

D:  I think you mean yaks.

L:  No, I mean yetis!  A woman and three yaks were killed.  By a yeti!  Right here!  The police said so!

D:  What?!  When?  Today?  While I was out?

L:  No.  In 1998.

***

It’s minus 1°C again in their bedroom this morning.  D&L are developing new skills: how to get dressed in a sleeping bag; how to clean their teeth in bed with a swig of water and a spit-mug pilfered from the dining room the night before.

They follow a broad scar of pebbles and boulders and water and ice snaking down from the pass ahead.  The turf beneath their feet is dissolving into sand as they gain altitude.   Beyond the pass, the horizon ends at the great white wall of Cho Oyu, at 8,188m the world’s 6th highest mountain, an impassable barrier between Nepal and Tibet.

P1020780 (2)At a lonely teahouse skirted by stone-walled yak paddocks, they stop for tea.  The sun gleams off the blue tin roof, the pristine whitewash and the silver dish of a solar kettle.

L:  It’s beautiful.

Angtu:  13 people died.

L:  Here?

Angtu:  Yes.  In 1995.  An avalanche came down and buried the lodge – not this one, there was another, at the foot of the slope.  A group of Japanese trekkers were staying there.

D:  How terrible.

Angtu:  There was so much snow.  I was stuck in Gokyo, 2 hours from here, for 11 days.  Many people needed rescuing.  I was helping as cook, feeding stranded trekkers and helicopter rescue teams.  There were no phones, no wifi.  It was more difficult back then.

L:  Were your family worried about you?

Angtu grins cheerfully.

Angtu:  They thought I was dead!  They’d heard all the stories, of the snow and the avalanches, and they knew I was here.  Every day I didn’t come home.  When I got back to my village, they were all so surprised.  They said “What are you doing here?  You’re supposed to be dead!”

A man skips towards them, moving at a trot down the trail, talking on his mobile.  He stops to greet Angtu, finishes his call and whoops with joy.  They chat, laugh, shake hands and move on.  Angtu explains.

Angtu:  He’s very happy!  He’s just been told he has 3 months work as an Everest expedition porter.  He can earn a lot of money – enough for a year.  He said to me that he sent his son away to work in the Gulf so he could send money home to the family, but he never sends any money – there’s always some excuse.  Now he can tell his good-for-nothing son to come home and look after the yaks while he earns the money instead!

P1020811 (2)At the top of the pass they enter a long valley strewn with boulders.  They pass the first of Gokyo’s sacred lakes on which a pair of orange Brahminy ducks glide and preen on the metal-grey water.  Further on they reach the second sacred lake.  It’s fringed with decorative cairns, placed there by Hindus and Buddhists for whom these lakes have religious significance, or by trekkers taking selfies.

L:  It’s frozen!

D:  I can see that.  It’s awesome.

L:  But it’s supposed to be blue.  In the pictures it’s blue!  An amazing turquoise blue.

D:  Not today it isn’t.

L:  But it’s on the cover of the guidebook!  Looking blue!

D:  I don’t think shouting’s going to change it.

Angtu:  The photo must be summer.  It always freezes in the winter.

L:  Oh.

P1020817 (4)A train of yaks lumbers by, calmly picking their way across the rocky ground, and swinging their big gentle lethal-weapon heads from side to side.  Some have untidy white face markings on otherwise black woolly coats, as though they have been apple-dunking in a trough of whitewash.

As they continue up the valley, the sun goes in, the frigid air nips their skin, and the landscape turns shades of white and grey.  Over a small rise fly tattered prayer flags, and beyond lies the village of Gokyo, on the shores of the third sacred lake.  The surface of the water is a solid crust of ice and snow, and the village is cloaked in sombre shade.  In sharp contrast, at the head of the valley, Cho Oyu dazzles whitely under a clear blue sky.

At 4780m Gokyo seems impossibly chilly and isolated, set amongst an unforgiving landscape of rock and ice.  Behind the village a high ridge of glacial moraine threatens to break surf-like over the buildings, and in front, the lake, ringed by spectacular mountains, breathes icily over the huddle of lodges.  To one side there is a gentler sight, its scale deceptive, seeming almost a hill, a soft dome of parched brown grass.  This is Gokyo Ri.

P1020833 (2)In this remotest of backwaters is a cluster of trekking lodges.  Their bedroom has a carpet, a lake view and clean linen on the twin beds.  The internet works and there is a plug for charging phones.  A skylight lets the sun heat the space in the day.  They look in wonder at the en-suite bathroom with Western loo, a basin and a shower tray.

L:  It’s fantastic.

Hotel:  Yes.  Only one small problem.  Last winter our caretaker forgot to drain the pipes, so they all froze.  And then they split.  So everything is broken.

D:  Oh.

Hotel:  But we’ll bring you a bucket!

D:  That sounds great.

After a walk around the lake, they get into bed.  It’s mid-afternoon.

L:  I  have to say – I didn’t expect to spend quite this much time in bed.  It’s brilliant of course – I love being in bed.  But I sort of imagined us wandering about and exploring more.

D:  And just sitting.

L:  It’s a bit chilly for sitting.  Or wandering.  Or exploring.

D:  We’ve become too used to central heating everywhere, all the time.  It’s much better for the planet to do it this way – just heat one communal room for a couple of hours in the evening.  And wear more clothes.

L:  I’m already wearing all my clothes.

D:  And you’ve got your hot-water-bottle.  At 3 dollars a fill.

L:  That’s 3 dollars of happiness.  Worth every cent.

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Superhuman Sherpas – Nepal – Chapter 9

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Route = Namche Bazaar (3440m) – Thame (3820m) – Thame Gompa (3970m) – Namche Bazaar (3440m)

 Date = 16-18 March

Today is a rest day.  Angtu is shocked that D&L want breakfast at the ludicrously late hour of 9am, but joins them anyway.  They have coffee, tea, cereal and toast.

D:  No, no eggs thank you.

The waitresses bring bacon, fried potatoes, and something sinister called chicken sausage.  They gaze at Angtu in dismay.

D:  We didn’t ask for any of this.

Angtu:  Don’t worry.  I will eat.

He tucks in happily.

They amble around Namche Bazaar, admiring the multi-coloured buildings nestled in their horseshoe valley surrounded by high white peaks.  They explore the paved and stepped alleys, the hiking shops and souvenir shops, the cafes and grocers.  They scoot past the meat market where dogs wait expectantly for discarded cut-offs, and through the busy weekly market selling eggs, onions and garlic, aprons and kitchenware.P1020490 (2)

Angtu:  Namche is a trading town.  With Tibet.  For over 100 years.

L:  What do they trade?

Angtu:  Grains and hides and dried potatoes.  Nepali paper and cotton.  All carried over the pass to Tibet.  And they’d bring back salt and Tibetan wool.

L:  Does that still happen?

Angtu:  Only a little.  Now things in China are cheaper than Nepal, so Tibetans come here to sell us Chinese goods.  Sherpa people don’t make a living from trade any more.  Now it’s from tourism.

They peer through the doors of the monastery, which is closed, but circle it (clockwise) and turn all the prayer wheels.  They eat pizza and drink cappuccino.

They examine an exhibition of Nepalis who have summited Everest.   There are a lot of them.

L:  How come they’re all Sherpas?  Like Phurba.  Almost every single one?

Angtu:  Sherpas are very strong.

D:  Sherpas make the best mountaineers and high-altitude porters.  They’re really good at it.

L:  Why?

D:  They’ve been living up here, at altitude for so long, centuries, that they’ve become physically superior beings.  Their blood whizzes oxygen around the body better than the rest of us.

Angtu:  Sherpa people have been in this region for 400 years.  They came from Tibet, and when they arrived there was nothing here – no people or walking trails or bridges or fields.  Just forest and grass and rivers.

D:  So were Sherpas the first people ever to come to this region?

Having listened magnanimously to Phurba described as a superior being, Angtu feels it is time to give a gentle shout out to his own ancestors.

Angtu:  Maybe.  Or maybe not.  There is some evidence of earlier people.  Maybe Rai people – shepherds.  I think Rai people were maybe here first.

P1020531 (2)He takes them up to a viewpoint above town.  On the northern horizon, the clouds shift briefly.

Angtu:  There!  There it is!

D:  There what is?

Angtu:  Everest!

He points out the unmistakable dark pyramid of Mount Everest, jutting up from behind its lower neighbours, its formidable south west face too steep for snow to stick to.  The clouds shift again and it is gone.

***

D&L need to work on acclimatisation, so they’re heading higher, to the village of Thame for a night.  Clouds are rolling over the higher peaks, hiding the sun, as they make their way up a rocky valley.  The trail is theirs alone, except for a giggling family helping their very drunk grandfather home from a boozy morning in Namche.  And an army of litter pickers.

The SPCC (Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee) has been busy in the area since 1991.  They manage rubbish and recycling collection and disposal in villages, on trekking trails and on popular mountain climbing routes.  They have installed bins along all the major trails – with waste sorted into burnable and non-burnable.  They’ve built 3 incinerators to dispose of burnable waste and dug more than 100 pits for biodegradable rubbish.  They’ve banned glass drinks bottles entirely from the park – wiping out injuries from broken glass and the high cost of transporting heavy and bulky glass waste out of the area.  They even manage a couple of public toilets on the busiest trails.  They promote environmental awareness to local people and businesses and tourists, and organise annual clean-up campaigns.  And it really works.  For all the people living, visiting and walking through this landscape, it is remarkably litter-free.

They pass a patchwork of ploughed fields.

L:  What can they grow up here at 3500 metres?

Angtu:  Potatoes, barley and buckwheat.  Only one harvest a year – there’s a short growing season because it’s cold and dry.  It’s difficult to grow enough to live on.  Many people leave their village for months to work as climbers and guides and porters for the trekking season.

L:  Like you?

Angtu smiles.

Angtu:  Yes – like me.

Three laden yaks make their way past, ponderously, swinging their heavy heads and long sharp horns in the manner of absent-mindedly handled weapons.  They wear their hair long, like a skirt around their knees.  Their legs are short and their long-plumed tails swish gently behind them.

As D&L pause under a soaring overhang of rock, brightly painted murals of deities looming down on them, it begins to sleet.  The final half hour to Thame is a cold one.  Needles of ice-cold rain pummel sideways into their faces as they zig-zag up a crumbling slope of scree to reach the village – a wet green-grey carpet of close-cropped grass, stone walls and low buildings.

In their lodge they are the only guests.  It is achingly cold but there’s an electric blanket.  They get straight into bed.

L:  D’you know that Thame is a village of superheroes?

D:  I did not know that.

L:  There must be something in the air.  This tiny place has produced all the world’s best ever Sherpa mountaineers. Edmund_Hillary_and_Tenzing_Norgay-2

D:  Like who?

L:  Like Tenzing Norgay, the first person ever to summit Everest along with Edumund Hillary in 1953.

L:  Like both Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa who share the record for having summited Everest 21 times each – more than anyone else ever.

L:  Like Ang Rita Sherpa, who holds the record for having summited Everest without oxygen 10 times.   They all come from here.

Outside, a narrow clear-sky window reveals a gigantic sun-lit snow-wrapped peak, floating in a choppy sea of dark grey storm clouds.  It’s a little bit magic.

Dinner is excellent, and copious.  They’re not very hungry.  Luckily Angtu is with them.

Angtu:  Don’t worry.  I will eat.

***

Angtu:   Don’t worry.  I will eat.

Angtu helps himself to lavish portions of breakfast.   He and Phurba have slept well, in a room in the lodge.  This morning D&L find their private bathroom rather wasted.  The water pipes are all frozen.  They scrape the iced condensation from the inside of the window and look out.  It’s a stunningly beautiful blue-sky day.  The valley is ringed by mountains – to one side a low shrub-covered hillside, to the other a gigantic slab of snow and rock.

From the crumbling, scrubby ridgetop above Thame, they can see almost into Tibet.  A woman walks by, ceaselessly mumbling under her breath the Buddhist mantra – “om mani padme hum”.  They follow the stupas and shrines set at intervals along the path, until they reach the monastery, built around a courtyard.   The terracotta-painted gompa stands in contrast against the towering wall of rock behind.  They sit on the sun-warmed flagstones, their backs against the sun-warmed wall, and wait for a monk to unlock the door.P1020584 (3)

D:  There’s been a monastery here for 350 years.  There are over 260 monasteries in the Sherpa region and this is one of the oldest.

L:  Never mind that – look at the views!

A white prayer-flag flutters on a tall pole in the centre of the courtyard, which has buildings on three sides.  The fourth side has nothing – just an immense sky and magnificent views, down over the village and further, to layers of jagged white mountains edging the horizon.

L:   Is that a reservoir, down at the far edge of Thame?

Angtu:  A little hydropower plant.  The river goes into it and makes electricity for all the villages from here down to Namche.

L:  For lighting?

Angtu:  And for grinding grain and rice.  And for cooking and heating water – so local people don’t need so much wood.

They examine the beautiful interior of the gompa, which despite the wooden floors and brightly coloured decorations, is dark and chilly.  Two lines of low wooden prayer platforms are lined with neatly folded, thick cloaks, for the monks to wrap up in when meditating.  Clearly, despite the hydro-power, both heat and light are resources not to be squandered.  They head back outside, to the sunshine and the views.

D:  It’s quite different to a Thai Buddhist monastery.

L:  It’s a different sort of Buddhism.  This is Mahayana.  In Thailand it’s Theravada.

D:  What’s the difference?

L:  I’m not really sure.  Except that possibly in Thai Buddhism the ultimate goal is to reach personal enlightenment, whereas here it’s to become enlightened and then help others to get there too.  Maybe.  You’d need to ask an expert.

D:  But otherwise it’s similar?

L:  I think so, in many ways.  They both believe in reincarnation, and gaining merit, which in Nepal is called “sonam”, to improve their current and future lives.  And here they believe that mountaintops are the home of the gods.

D:  I can believe that too.  Just look around – if one was a god, where better to live?

Angtu: Mount Khumbila is home to Khumbila – the god who protects this area.  The mountain is too sacred to be climbed.  It’s not so high – just 5761m – but it has never been climbed.

D:  Where is it?

Angtu: Just above Namche – I will show you on tomorrow’s walk.  And of course Mount Everest is sacred too.  The goddess protector of Everest and the whole region is Miyolangsangma.  She lives at the top of the mountain and rides a golden tiger.  She’s the goddess of giving.

They walk back down along the ridge, looking northwards towards Tibet.

L:  Angtu?  Could we walk into Tibet?

Angtu looks startled.

Angtu:  Now?

L:  No, not now!  Just generally.  Can people just walk across?

Angtu:  No.  Sometimes the borders with Tibet are closed and sometimes open.  Right now a few are open, but only five or six, for local people to trade.  But tourists need permits.  And in winter they are closed with snow.

P1020590 (2)They cross the yak paddocks in Thame.  Yaks are lying or grazing, wearing woven collars and big bells and wisps of crimson wool.  On their withers is tied a white prayer-flag with Tibetan script printed in gold.

Angtu:  Yaks are very valuable for local people.  If you have a yak, you have milk and curd and cheese, you have wool for clothes and rugs, you have power to plough your potato fields, you have dung for fuel and cooking and warmth, and you have transport to carry heavy loads.

L:  Can the yaks stay there all year?

Angtu:  No – in the summer they will go higher to pastures further up the mountain – to Gokyo – and then they will come down here again in the winter when it snows.

L:  That happens in Europe too, in the mountains.  Not with yaks of course.  With sheep.  And cows.

They find a little used path to take them back down to Namche on the other side of the river.  It starts well but dwindles out.  They weave their way comfortably down a grassy slope, slaloming between clumps of juniper.  The slope ends at a bluff.  A thin crumbling animal track zigs on down to the river far below.  D finds a better way, but longer, and sets off away from them.  L is torn.  She chooses to follow Angtu, not wanting to undermine him or hurt his feelings.  They slip and slide, Angtu grimacing and guiding L from below, while D tactlessly emerges underneath them on a flat trail, looking smug. P1020605 (2)

Angtu:  Slowly, slowly.

Angtu:  Not easy.

Angtu:  Be careful – slippery.

At the water’s edge they rest, sun bouncing off the turquoise surface and the broad white river stones, smoothed and flattened by centuries of winter torrents.  The air is cold, the water icy, but the sun is hot on their faces and the scenery spread out before them is like a cinematic backdrop – too big and beautiful to possibly be real.

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Trekkers & Treats – Nepal – Chapter 8

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Route = Paiya (2770m) – Surke (2290m) – Phakding (2610m) – Namche Bazaar (3440m)

Date = 14-15 March

 For a third day in a row Angtu has L&D up and walking by 7.30am.  Today they need to reach their long awaited beacon of luxury, however long it takes.   At last the snow covered peaks are getting closer as the trail turns north towards the high Himalayas.  The landscape is stretching and distorting, becoming taller and deeper and steeper.   Below the path, the slope tumbles 1,000 metres to the cold blue thread of the Dudh Kosi river.  Overhead buzz 18-seater Twin Otter planes landing and taking off at Lukla – so dwarfed by their surroundings that they resemble tiny white insects, impossibly vulnerable.  D&L watch as the insects touch down with absolute precision on the 30 metre wide strip of runway on the edge of a cliff, braking hard as they disappear from view, roaring up the 12% gradient to stop, they hope, in less than 527 metres, at which point the tarmac ends and the mountain begins.

In the village of Surkey, they round a corner to find 30 people blocking their path.

L:  Whatever’s going on?  Is it a wedding?  A funeral?  A protest march?

D:  It’s a trekking group.

L:  Oh.  What on earth are they doing here?

D:  Umm…trekking.

L:  But these are our mountains.  Make them go away.

D:  You’d better get used to it.  We’re about to join the main route to Everest Base Camp.  You’re going to be sharing your mountains with a lot of other people.

Angtu: In the busy season, if the weather’s good, maybe 30 flights land at Lukla every day.  That’s nearly 600 people coming in.  And 600 people leaving.  A lot of people.

L: A LOT of people!

Angtu chats to the group’s guides, shaking hands with them and laughing.  He returns.

Angtu:  Don’t worry.  They’re going the other way.

After a brief stretch of supremely flat engineered trail, they pass a junction, lose the trekkers, and the surface beneath their feet crumbles once more.  From here, for a few hours, there is nothing and no-one, no people or donkeys or lodges, just pine trees and views and the roar of the Dudh Kosi tumbling over boulders far below.   The trail clings to the side of the mountain, and the drops are dizzying.  It’s beautiful.

P1020413 (3)They come to Moshe, a medieval-looking collection of tiny stone cottages and doorways in rock-faces.  The land is worked – divided into little stone-walled fields and compounds.  There are no shops or lodges or tea-houses.  More than anywhere they’ve walked through so far, this place seems utterly untouched by tourism and modernity, separate, forgotten.  Lukla’s town and airport are invisible and yet just a few hundred vertical metres above them.  They are right in the flight path.  Some days 1000 people pass over their heads, but each is oblivious to the other.  They are worlds apart.

The village goes on and on.  And on.  Moshe morphs into Chaurikharka, with its neat, good sized houses newly painted.  There is an almost continuous display of long mani walls, prayer wheels and prayer flags along the main street.  Everything is tidy and well maintained.  There are no people, no donkeys and still no shops or lodges or tea-houses or bustle of everyday living.

L:  Where is everyone?  It’s bordering on spooky.

D:  You’re probably just hungry.

L:  I am quite hungry.

On and on they walk, through the village, looking for anywhere that might provide lunch.  But no-one is opening their kitchens to feed hungry porters and trekkers, and there are no porters or trekkers to feed.  This is a community not on a trading route.  All the foot traffic heading to Lukla will bypass this valley.  However unlike Moshe, it seems there’s money trickling in from somewhere – Lukla’s tourist dollars reaching them by osmosis – to fund the maintenance of houses, walls and lanes.

L:  D’you think a community is better or worse off if they can benefit from tourism without the tourists?

D:  Better off, surely, without hundreds of the likes of us marching through.

L:  But there’s no life here.  Without the passers-by, there’s no commerce.

D:  Or worse off.  I don’t know.  You’re confusing me.  I need my lunch.

On and on they go.  The few buildings that might be lodges are closed.

Angtu:  Hungry?  We’ll find somewhere soon.  At least it’s flat.

L:  It’s definitely uphill.

Angtu grins, dismissing the insignificant gradient.

Angtu:  Nepali flat.

At the very top of the village is a huge empty lodge.  It is open.

After lunch they emerge onto the main route opposite what looks like a smart English country pub.  The engineered paving is back, flat and smooth and wide enough to drive along, lined at intervals with lodges and restaurants and tea-houses, and busy with trekkers and porters.

There is a clear division between trekking porters and commercial porters.  The former work with tourists, and are usually young, well equipped with footwear and appropriate clothing, and their tumplines suspend waterproof kit-bags supposedly limited to 30kg.  They trot along the trails, skipping up and down the steep slopes at twice the speed of the trekkers.   They cover a relatively short distance per day, as they are limited to going only as far as the trekkers can manage, and earn about $15-20/day.

Commercial porters supply stores and lodges with food, consumables and building materials.  They tend to be older and dressed more simply, shod in trainers or crocs or even sandals.  Their tumplines support a doko basket, loaded with as much weight as they can manage – there are no limits.  Often they are carrying as much as or more than their own body weight.   They move slower, rest more frequently, and carry a short T-handled walking stick called a tokma, on which they can balance their load to rest while standing.  They cover more ground and earn less than trekking porters, being paid by the kilo.

P1030455 (2)There is also a hybrid third group – the expedition porters.  These guys tend to look and dress like trekking porters – young, fit and reasonably well equipped.  However, it seems that they too are paid by the kilo as they carry ludicrous loads, the furthest distance, to base camps at the foot of the world’s highest mountains, covering many miles a day.  They are doubled over under towers of chairs, rolls of carpet, steel folding tables, mattresses, drums of climbing gear, cooking gas cylinders, pots and pans.  It’s seasonal and punishing work, but lucrative if they can get it.

As has become a pattern, the day has by now clouded over.  In the village of Ghat, they spot a small tatty-looking sign to their destination, and Angtu seeks directions.  They leave the main route and cross a swathe of landslip.  A young woman overtakes them, cheerfully swinging a large mouse in a small cage, and talking on her phone.

D:  Umm…Angtu?  What’s….?

Angtu:  It’s a rat trap.  The rats eat the food supplies, which is very bad.  So she will take it to the far side of the river, to set it free where it can’t come back.

As if the mani walls and prayer wheels and prayer flags and stupas weren’t clues enough, they are reminded yet again that this is Buddhist country.

They cross the Dudh Kosi on a suspension bridge, feeling the chill of the water waft up around them, and climb through pine forest.  Though surprised at the approach on what is barely more than an animal track, every minute they expect to arrive, to walk through the doors of welcoming luxury.  Forty minutes later they reach a tiny farming village teetering precariously at the top of an enormous landslide.    Angtu again asks directions.  They follow a high walled lane, climb over a fence and walk through a yak enclosure, to arrive at an unsigned single storey stone building.  They have arrived.

The door is opened by a tall slender Nepali woman whose poised stature and fine features are unlike the small, soft, rounded faces that they have become familiar with.   The interior is stylish and comfortable – books and cushions and Buddhist artwork.

P1020431 (2)Angtu acts as translator and go-between, making sure they have everything they need.

Angtu:  Tea?

L:  My usual.  Hot lemon please.

Angtu:  No hot lemon.

L:  Oh.  OK.  Tea please.  Could you ask for the wifi password?

Angtu:  No wifi.

L:  Oh.  Well.  Never mind.

Angtu:  Are you ready to order dinner?

D:  Yes.  Can we see the menu?

Angtu:  No menu.

D:  Right, what is there?

Angtu:  Spaghetti or dal bhat.

L:  I think I’ll have….

Angtu:  And you have to both choose the same.

L: Oh.

D:  We’ll have dal bhat.

Angtu:  And salad?

L:  Green things?  For the first time in 10 days?  Yes please!

Angtu:  OK – we’re going now.

D:  Hold on – where are you off to?

Angtu: Down to Phakding.

L:  That’s an hour away.  Why aren’t you staying here?

Angtu:  They don’t have a room.

D:  Are they full?

Angtu:  No.  There are no other guests.  But they don’t have a room.

He shrugs and grins and rubs his tummy.

Angtu:  We have friends in Phakding.  We’ll eat momos.

Their room is cold but beautifully decorated and the duvet is thick.  The bed is….

L:  Oh.

D:  What?

L:  Hard.  It’s a futon mattress.  It’s less comfy than the lodges.

The dal bhat is tasty, but the salad is scrumptious.  L abandons her rice and gorges on unidentified greenness:  crispy and crunchy and bitter and sweet and lemony and fragrant.  There are herbs and little beans or peas or nuts – she can’t tell which.  She doesn’t care.  She just keeps eating.

D:  It’s risky.

L:  What is?

D:  That salad.  It may make you ill.

L:  It tastes much too good.

D:  You’re living life on the edge.

***

Angtu and Phurba return in the morning.

Angtu:  So was it worth it?

L:  No.  Though the salad was amazing.  But I never would have booked if I’d thought they wouldn’t give you both a room.

Angtu:  We saw friends.  We ate momos.  Maybe too many.

He disappears discreetly for about the 5th time that morning.  This is most unlike him.  Usually he is happy to share his bathroom habits with his trek-mates, having first chosen a nice viewpoint:

Angtu:  It’s my time – natural toilet!

They are alone on a hillside of pines, paralleling the river and the main trekking route.  Between Phakding and the river are fertile fields and a series of polythene greenhouses.  At around 2,600m, this is the region’s kitchen garden, with a 9 month growing season and plenty of moisture, providing greens for the higher, colder settlements further up the trail.  Angtu whistles.  A tiny figure emerges from a greenhouse half a mile away.  They both wave and whistle some more.  Angtu smiles.

Angtu:  My friend.

They join the main trail, following the Dudh Kosi upstream, past small-holdings, stupas and mantra- painted boulders, shops and tea-houses.  They pause to watch a group of laden cattle crossing a suspension bridge.

P1020459 (2)D:  Are those yaks?

Angtu:  Or naks.  Yaks are male.  Naks are female.  But these aren’t either.

D:  So what are they?

Angtu:  These ones are dzopkyo – half yak, half cow.  You probably won’t see proper yaks till we get higher.

D:  OK.  Chopki.  Got it.

They pass through a checkpoint and Angtu heads off with a fistful of paperwork.  A sign says “Welcome to Sagarmatha National Park – World Heritage Natural Site”.  They sit on a wall to wait and read about the park.

L:  As well as Everest, it’s got 7 other peaks over 7,000 metres.

D:  Excellent.  We’ll see some of those.

L:  And glaciers.

D:  Cool – we’ll see some of them.

L:  And “the unique culture of the Sherpa people”.

D:  We’ll see some of that.

L:  And snow leopards and red pandas.

D:  I doubt we’ll see those.

L:  It gets 30,000 visitors…

D:  Yikes, I hope we don’t see all of them.

L:  ….a year, which has massively boosted the local economy and made access for local people much easier to things like healthcare and schools.

D:  That’s good.

L:  And has led to a lot of investment in infrastructure, such as bridges and trails.

D:  That’s good too.

L:  But it also means the cost and demand for food has gone up a lot too.

D:  Not so good if you’re not getting an income from tourism.

L:  No.  Guess what percentage of the park is forested?

D:  Tell me.

P1020921 (2)L:  3%.  Hardly any.  And guess how much is barren land over 5,000 metres?

D:  Umm….

L:  Too slow.  69%!  Most of it’s over 5,000 metres!

D:  What’s the rest?

L:  Grazing.

D:  I’m worried about the 3%.  The trees.

L:  You’re not allowed to burn firewood in the park.  From live trees.  They only burn yak dung.  And rubbish.  And dead trees, though there really aren’t any.  And they’re replanting bits.

D:  OK.

Angtu returns.

Angtu:  Shall we go?  Slowly slowly?

He’s worried about the big climb ahead to Namche Bazaar.  The guidebooks describe it as torturous.  L is coughing much less now but he’s not sure how she’ll do.  He’s still not feeling great himself.

They stop for lunch in a restaurant crammed with several large trekking groups, and sit at the end of a long table feeling overwhelmed by the crowd.  Outside it begins to rain.

P1020476 (2)It’s still spitting when they make their way alongside the river bed, on a path of worn-smooth river stones.  Ahead across the river are two long suspension bridges, one above the other, reaching from one hillside to the next.  The lower one is no longer used.  The higher one is a very long way up.

They start to climb.  People keep getting in the way.  To their surprise they overtake one group after another, one person at a time.  Most of these trekkers flew straight into Lukla yesterday and so are less fit and less acclimatised.  L&D have been walking for 10 days.  They bounce across the suspension bridge happily, watching others cling to the swaying sides in terror.  It is a very long way down.  The drizzle turns to rain and sets in.  They put on their waterproofs and set off up the broad, sandy zigzagging path.  It is mercilessly steep.  They get into a rhythm, overtaking trekker after trekker after trekker – not because they are faster but because they don’t need to stop and rest.  Even Angtu can hardly keep up.

Angtu:  We are strong!

L:  I feel strong.  I can breathe!  It’s amazing!

Angtu:  Stop and rest?  Or keep going?

L:  Keep going.  I’m fine.

D:  It’s not a race, you know.

L:  Of course it’s a race.

They’re treating themselves again. While they can.  The Yeti Mountain Home is right at the top of Namche Bazaar, almost in the cloud.  After last night they are braced for more disappointment.  At the door, boots are traded for the crocs provided.  The sole is flapping off one of L’s crocs so she has to walk with a limp to avoid tripping over it.  They are welcomed, given hot towels and a pot of lemon tea.  The reception area is bitingly cold, but their bedroom is cosy and comfortable and carpeted.  It has panoramic views down over Namche Bazaar.  It has a heater!  An electric blanket!  Great thick duvets and great thick mattresses.  An en-suite bathroom!  The shower dispenses masses of scalding hot water, solar heated on the roof above.  They shower, wash their hair, and get straight into bed.  It’s the middle of the afternoon.  It is heavenly.

P1020478 (2)There’s good news – the hotel is giving Angtu free accommodation and meals.

L:  And Phurba?

Angtu:  He will stay in town.  I’ll find him somewhere.  I’ll look after him.

L:  Oh.  Somewhere nice.

Angtu:  This is normal.  It’s how things are.

It’s not ideal but they accept it.  They’re grateful for Angtu’s free place.  He joins them for supper.

D:  How’s Phurba?

Angtu:  He’s happy.  He’s found friends.  I had dinner with him.  More momos.

Three bowls of soup arrive.

Angtu:  Not for me – oh, ok then.

They finish their soup.  Vast amounts of Chinese food arrive.  The unexpected flavours make a nice change.

Angtu:  Not for me – oh, ok then.

There is much more than they can eat.  But Angtu is not one to waste an opportunity.  He eats until he is about to burst.  One of the waitresses is married to his wife’s brother.  They leave him there chatting and go back to bed.

P1020392 (2)

Little Donkeys, Little Donkeys… – Nepal – Chapter 7

 

P1020349 (3)

Route = Ringmo (2720m) – Trakshindu La Pass (3070m) – Jubing (1680m) – Paiya (2770m)

Date = 12-13 March

Angtu is at a loss as to why D&L don’t get up at dawn, like all the other trekkers he has led and set out before sunrise.  Every day he tries in vain.

Angtu:  So breakfast tomorrow…what time?  6.30?  7.00?

D:  Or 8.00?   There’s no hurry.  We’re not walking all day.

But now Angtu needs to put his foot down.  They have a lot of ground to cover and he now knows that L can neither breathe nor walk downhill.  He digs in.

Angtu:  (firmly) I think 7.00 will be OK.  Leave at 7.30?

P1020269 (2)The early morning light drapes the hillside with a chilly blue hue, but the sky above is clear.  In the distance a curtain of morning mist opens briefly to reveal an immense white pyramid, and then closes again, as though they imagined it.  They climb steep cobbled lanes, past orchards and neatly fenced paddocks, and, still cobbled, still steep, on a sunken lane through woodland.  At the top a covered gateway leads them to the Trakshindu La.  The 3070m pass is scruffy and windswept – a bare earth farmyard with a lodge, barns and animal enclosures.  Contradicting all outward appearances, inside the lodge dining room every table has a pretty cloth and a vase with fresh flowers.   Near the door is a huge copper basin filled with water, in which freshly picked marigolds float on the surface.  An elderly woman arranges them lovingly.  It is entirely unclear where in this harsh landscape these flowers could possibly have come from, or whom they are for.

On the far side of the pass a thin cloud blurs the landscape.  From a monastery compound resonates the deep chanting of male voices to the beat of a drum.  Beneath them the serpentine village of Nunthala emerges.

There are several remarkable things about Nunthala.  One is the donkeys.  There are suddenly hundreds of them, in enclosures, on terraces, grazing on dust or being loaded/unloaded, and parading through the village nose to tail.  Another is that the main street looks like a snapshot of a prosperous Cotswolds town.  On each side of the path are large three storey houses with generous front gardens, paved and edged with trees and flower beds and enclosed in neat dry-stone walling.  And lastly there is the tin shack.P1020297 (2)

L:  Look at the tin shack.

D:  It’s a tin shack.

L:  Look at the sign.

D:  It’s a…..snooker hall??

A large tin sign on the large tin shack says “Snooker House”.  And to clarify matters for the disbelieving, there are pictures on the sign of people playing snooker.

L:  Umm…how much does a snooker table weigh?

D:  Well over a ton, I’d imagine.

L:  And they got it here….on the donkeys??

Nunthala is a day’s walk from tiny Phaplu airport and the nearby town of Salleri, from where there is a tarmac road to Kathmandu.  As such, it is a gateway village, hence the donkeys.  Trains of pack animals transport heavy goods such as gas, kerosene and rice from the roadhead to settlements en route to Everest Base Camp.   The new sandy ribbon road project has also reached Nunthala, in theory providing access for motorbikes, jeeps and tractors.

Walking between terraces of intensely green buckwheat and pink cherry blossom, they are forced to step aside at intervals, out of the way of approaching donkey trains.P1020354 (2)

Angtu:  Right!  Go right!

He waves them out of the path of the oncoming four-hooved traffic.

L:  Must we always pass them anticlockwise?  The opposite way to the mani stones?

Angtu looks at her blankly.

Angtu: You should be on the inside.  The uphill side.  Or they will push you off the edge.

L:  Oh.  That makes more sense.

D:  Idiot.

P1020315 (2)The trail becomes punishingly steep, a waterfall of dust and boulders.  They continue down, glad of knee supports and trekking poles.  Below, they can hear, and then see, an icy blue river and a huddle of huts.  This river is their first glimpse of the Dudh Kosi – which they will follow for the next two weeks, all the way to its source, where at 4,700 metres it flows from the Ngozumba Glacier through Gokyo’s sacred lakes.

The tiny settlement of Chhirdi is one of the simplest they have passed through.  With the exception of a single two storey building with a blue-painted balcony, the buildings are low, made from bare stone, wood and tin.  It is not clear which are used for animals and which are habitation.  Goats graze on the steep shrub covered slope above.  Half a dozen women of various ages are sitting on the wall outside the largest building.  All have their faces lavishly adorned with gold jewellery.  They wear enormous hoop earrings, large gold disks spreading across their left nostril and cheek, and golden pendants hanging from septum to mouth.

“Rai people” murmurs Angtu Rai.

They are grateful to reach Jubing – to remove their boots, to rest up in their toy-sized room, so small that there’s no space to shut the door unless they are standing on the bed, to wash in a bucket in the tiny tin wash-house, and to find working internet.

L:  Finally!  I’ve got a response!

Further into their trek, L has attempted to book some luxury.  At $140/night half board they have very high hopes for warm rooms, en-suite bathrooms, hot showers and delicious food, but have so far had no response.

D:  What does it say?  Are we booked?

L:  It says: “Sorry to not getting you back sooner I was in the silent Meditation for a month and I couldn’t use any mail or phone.”  Oh.  Curious.  But yes, we’re booked in.

***

P1020324 (2)Angtu has been firm again, and in the morning they are on the trail by 7.30am – heading uphill pretty much all day.  The landscape is stunning, the sky is blue, and the temperature pleasant.  They wish they could dawdle – taking two or even three days to cover the ground instead of just one.  Ahead on the path a woman, stick in hand, gracefully flicks cattle dung from the ground into a doko basket on her back.  Bamboo, fruit trees and even the occasional palm grow beside the trail.   Angtu and Phurba chat and laugh.  Phurba sings and quacks like a duck.

Angtu:  I’m thinking of putting him on a dating website.  “Phurba Sherpa, age 27, height 5’3”, very strong and handsome, sometimes his head works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

P1020338 (2)At the top of a steep flight of stone steps they pass through a monastery gateway.  There is a choice – more steps to the gompa itself, or a pause for a tea-stop.  L opts for tea and basks in the sun.  D heads for the steps.  At the top, prayer flags flutter and the gompa door is open.  Inside, his socks slide on the polished wood floor.  The walls and ceiling are alive with colour, shapes and patterns.  Layers of fabric forming cylindrical frills, in reds, greens, yellows, blues and white, hang from the ceiling.  One wall is made up of niches for prayer books.  Two green-skinned drums stand sentinel over low cushioned benches for monk meditation.  Outside again, the sunlight is dazzling and the lush green valley is spread out at his feet.

The village of Khari Khola trickles across the hillside for a kilometre or more.  They are charmed by everything: the cottages, washing lines, haystacks-up-trees, an arbour of blossom across the path, stupas and prayer flags, terraces and meadows, lodges and shops, of which there are plenty.  Sadly they have to move on.

P1020359 (2)In a tea-house in Bupsa they order noodle soup and omelettes.  The owner’s tiny son shares a bench with D, playing a game on his mother’s phone.  He edges along the bench, studiously ignoring D.  D peers towards the screen and gives advice.  The boy takes no notice, loses the game and slides closer to D.  They both study the screen.   The boy loses the game.  He hands D the phone.  D loses the game.  The boy rolls his eyes and reclaims the phone.  He loses the game.  The boy gets comfortable, turning sideways, leaning back, using D as a back rest, feet on the bench, phone on his knees.  D drinks his tea.  The boy loses the game.

They climb.  And climb.  Magnolia trees are flowering in the oak forest.  The path is steeply stepped and rough going.  The donkey trains are frequent.  Angtu points across a thickly wooded gorge to a village on the far side.

Angtu:  See Paiya?  Over there.  That’s where we’re going.

D:  Great!  Not that far then.

Angtu:  Quite far.  Maybe 2 hours, maybe 3.

L:  Three hours?  But it’s just there!

Angtu:  We have to go round.  A looooong way round.

They begin the contour to reach the head of the gorge.  It goes on and on.  Paiya remains just over there but never closer.  The trail consists of tall and irregular stones forming cobbles, in a soup of liquid mud.  It is narrow, and very slippery.  There’s nowhere to rest away from the mud.  They have been on their feet for 9 hours and counting, and have climbed over 1,200 metres today.  It takes all their concentration to keep their footing.   Every now and then they negotiate an ammonic swamp of donkey pee.

L:  Why do all the donkeys pee in the same place?

D:  Dogs do.  Maybe they’re leaving messages.  Being sociable.

L:  Traffic jam ahead.

The trail is entirely blocked by donkeys.  Angtu goes off to investigate.  He returns.

Angtu:  A rice bag split.  They’re eating it.

D:  Might they move on?

Angtu:  Not till 5 o’clock.

D:  Why 5 o’clock?

Angtu:  They’re on a break.

D:  Right.

There is no way to edge around them on the uphill side.  So they scramble down off the trail onto the steep bank below, and make their way slowly past.  Phurba holds L’s hand and stands downhill of her to prevent her falling.  She hopes none of the donkeys will stumble off the path and squash them.  They have nearly made it when the donkey train begins to move.

Angtu:  It’s 5 o’clock.

P1020378 (3)They climb back up the bank and onto the path, still behind the donkeys, and follow them into Paiya.  At the entrance to the village there’s another hold-up.  A workman has left a hammer on the narrow metal bridge, and there is no way one particular donkey is stepping over that hammer.  No way.  After some ineffectual shouting and pushing, the hammer is removed and the donkey train continues.

The Bee Hive Lodge is pretty and has flower beds edged with upturned beer bottles.  Their room is ridiculously dark and has thick leopard print velour blankets.    They put on their head torches despite there still being an hour of daylight outside.

In the cosy dining room is an Israeli family with four small cheerful children.  Impressively, they too have made it here.  There is also a German who speaks fluent Nepali, eats with his hands and drinks water from a jug.

German:  I’ve walked all over Nepal, for 30 years.  Done every trekking route there is.  Many times.  And I think that this could be the toughest.

L:  Should we feel like heroes or fools?

D:  I’m thinking about it.

They go to bed early.

L:  D?

D:  What?

L:  Are you asleep?

D:  Yes.

L:  Oh.

D:  What?

L:  Nothing.

D:  What?

L:  Everything smells of donkey pee.

P1020309 (3)

Tibetan Nuns & Black Dogs – Nepal – Chapter 6

P1020178 (2)

Route = Jumbesi (2680m) – up down up down – Ringmo (2720m)

Date = 10-11 March

D:  How are you feeling?

L:  Feverish.

She blows her nose.  And coughs.

D:  Revolting.  D’you want any breakfast?

L:  Hot lemon.  I’ll get up.

D goes downstairs.

The curtain across the bedroom door bulges and wavers.

L:  Hello?

Phurba walks in with a mug of hot lemon.  L is still in bed.  They both look embarrassed.  D joins them.  Phurba makes a hasty exit.

D:  Sorry about that.  He offered.  I thought you were getting up.

L:  I’m ill.

D:  Drink your tea.

L drinks her tea.

D:  Have a pill.  Maybe just a Lemsip though.  Not all the sleeping potions you had yesterday.

L takes the pill and gags it back into her mug of tea noisily.

D: Disgusting.  Shall I leave you here?

L:  Yes please.

***

Down in the dining room, D meets an elderly American monk who lives in the guest house.  The hostess calls him Lama.

D:  How long have you been a monk?

Monk:  Oh, since 1990.  But I’ve been a Buddhist for 45 years.

D: And d’you live here all year?

Monk:  Oh no.  I spend my springs here in Jumbesi, the summer in Lhasa, and autumn somewhere else in Nepal or Tibet.

D:  And the winter?

The monk looks a little embarrassed.

Monk:  Well, the winters I go south.  Where it’s warmer.

D:  In Nepal?

Monk:  I go to Koh Chang, an island in the gulf of Thailand.

He seems to feel the need to explain this apparent frivolity.

Monk:  I have a son there.

D asks him about Thubten Chholing, the huge Tibetan monastery in the hills outside Jumbesi.

Monk:  Well, I’ve been there of course.  I go there often to meditate.  But they won’t let me stay more than a week or two at a time.

D:  Because you’re not Nepali?

Monk:  Because I’m not a woman!  It’s mostly nuns there.  The men can only visit.

***

P1020170 (3)High above Jumbesi, below the monastery, towers an immaculate white and gold stupa.  Four layers of niches wrap around the circumference, and in each little midnight-blue alcove sits a tiny golden Buddha.  Prayer flags stream from the pinnacle in all directions.  Mani stones, mantra-covered boulders, and prayer wheels mark the onward route.

Thubten Chholing is much more than a monastery – it’s a large village complex, populated by up to 700 red-robed, shorn-headed celibate Buddhists – the majority of them nuns, but also a few monks and children.   Around the central cluster of temple buildings spread countless little white bungalows spreading up and down and along the steep terraced hillside.

D:  It’s enormous!

Angtu:  Yes – much, much bigger than anywhere else in the Jumbesi valley.

Founded in the 1960s by Guru Trulsik Rinpoche fleeing Tibet, the community is independent and autonomous, and exists in isolation, leading a traditional lifestyle, feeding, housing and educating its residents without access to public healthcare or government support.   80% of the inhabitants are refugees from Tibet – most of whom will move on, but every year about 40 nuns opt to go no further and become a permanent part of the growing community. P1020200 (3)

D:  All these people must need so much firewood, and water and food.  And where does their sewage go?

Angtu:  It’s a problem.  The local people, in the smaller villages, are worried that this place uses too many resources, that it’s not good for the valley – the land or the people.  That if it continues to grow there won’t be enough for everyone.  Although last year the monastery planted 4000 trees.

They are greeted and shown around by a monk.

D:  What’s he saying Angtu?  Can you translate?

Angtu:  I will try.  But not easy.  I think they all speak Tibetan here.

P1020201 (3)In one courtyard nuns have spread maize kernels on large tarpaulin sheets.  One is kneeling, crushing the kernels under a rock, whist a shaggy white pony stands at her shoulder hoping for a meal of husks.  At a waist-high wooden pestle and mortar, the maize is further ground by two more nuns, heavy wooden clubs raised and lowered, pummelling rhythmically, wood on wood.

In another corner, a group of nuns sit peeling a potato mountain, dropping the small naked globes into a vast cauldron of water.   The monk leads them across a courtyard, festooned on high with strings of large white undergarments drying in the sun.  The monk is still talking.

D:  What’s he saying Angtu?

Angtu:  Many things.  But all in Tibetan.

The monk delivers them to a large room with low platform benches around the walls, and hands them over to a hospitality team of nuns. Tea and biscuits are offered and accepted, and they sit sipping, watching the nuns return to their task of counting money. A large cardboard box is filled with envelopes, each one containing a donation. There is a production line of opener, extractor, counter and rubber-band bundler. After a few mesmerising minutes Angtu extracts his wallet and pulls out a couple of large denomination notes.

D:  Hold on Angtu.  I’ll do the donation.  And isn’t that rather a lot?

Angtu:  Not a donation. Small notes are really useful. There are never enough. I’m going to ask for change.

They leave the monastery with gratifying bundles of cash.

***

D returns to their bedroom at lunch time with a menu.  L has covered the bed with discarded loo-paper hankies.

D: Repulsive.  D’you want any lunch?

L gets up and eats a quarter of an apple pancake.  The guesthouse has done their laundry which is drying on a line on the terrace.   The monk is in the dining room.

D:  Have you had a good morning?

Monk:  Well, I got bitten by a dog, and had to have a rabies shot.  A black dog – he sorta just came running at me.  He lives by the police station so they’re not going to do anything.

After lunch, D is determined to get L up and about.  They walk around the village.  Angtu has insisted they take their trekking poles for safety.  D is armed and tense, ready to defend them both from rabid attacks.

P1020212 (2)D:  A black dog!

L:  Where?  Oh, he’s friendly, aren’t you, puppy?

They continue past the school.

D:  Another black dog!

L:  It can’t be him – he’s too fat and old to come running at anyone.  And look how short his legs are.  And he’s smiling.

They continue round the stupa.

D:  Black dog!

L:  He’s asleep.  Or maybe dead.  Poke him with your stick.

D:  I most certainly will not.

Against all odds they survive their 10 minute stroll and return unscathed to the guest house.  L goes back to bed and spends the afternoon coughing and blowing her nose.   By evening the loo-paper snow-drift has grown.

D:  Gross.

He puts a bin by the bed.

D:  D’you want any supper?

L:  Some of that veg noodle soup thing we had the other day.

D:  Are you coming down?

L coughs until she runs out of breath.

D:  I’ll bring it up, shall I?

He returns later with a bowl of soup.

L:  The noodles are wrong.  And it’s got vegetables in.

D:  You asked for vegetable noodle soup.

L:  But I wanted just a stock cube and some Pot-Noodle-noodles.  This is actual food.  I can’t eat it.

D:  Just try some.

L tries some and retches loudly into the bin.

D:  Delightful.

He takes the bowl back downstairs.

***

P1020216 (2)The following morning they try again.

D:  How are you feeling?

L bursts into tears.

L:  Much better thank you.   No fever.  Just a bit weak.

She gets dressed sobbing, coughs until she doubles over and gags as she cleans her teeth.

L:  I’m fine, really.  Ready to go.

At breakfast D eats his pancake with enthusiasm and chats to the monk, while L tries for 30 minutes to swallow 3 spoonfuls of porridge.  The tears well up.

L:  I’m just going outside for a bit.

She sits in the lobby, weeping.  Phurba walks through to rope up the bags and they both pretend she isn’t crying.  D retrieves her.

L:  There’s nothing wrong, honestly.  I don’t even know why I’m crying.  I truly feel fine.

D:  You haven’t eaten anything for days.  Don’t worry, I’m going to cure you.

L:  Uh oh.

D:  How about….errr….strepsils, bananas and isotonic water?

L:  OK.

Angtu turns up looking pleased with himself.  L hastily dries her eyes and everyone does some more pretending that her face isn’t pink and blotchy.

Angtu:  I have pepper!

L:  Pepper?

Angtu:  For your cough!  It’s very good medicine.

He gets out a small pot containing a sort of peppery pesto-type paste.

Angtu:  Just put a little bit on your tongue.  It will help.

L does as she’s told.  Her eyes start watering again as the heat burns through her mouth.

L:  Mmm….that’s umm…great!  Thank you so much!

P1020250 (2)The day is overcast but dry.  The landscape is beautiful – a gentle path undulating around meadowy hillsides, through clumps of fir trees, past grazing cattle and (clockwise) around stupas and prayer flag poles.  They cross a river on a swaying steel suspension bridge above a group of mani boulders painted in multi-coloured mantras.  Despite the mild gradient and the fact that they are still at well under 3000m, L walks slowly, panting like crazy, as though her lungs are battling the thin air of high altitude.  She is coughing so much that her chest hurts and her stomach muscles are sore.   The three hour walk to Ringmo takes five and the final 200 metre climb finishes her off.  She staggers into the first guest house they come across.

L:  I am DONE.  Completely DONE.

She goes straight to bed, emerging only in the evening.  After dinner, they are joined in the cold dining room by eight Nepalis, friends and family, who turn on a large TV and avidly watch an hour of American wrestling.

L:  Have you given me another weird pill?

D:  No, why?

L:  Is this really happening?

D:  Yes, I’m afraid it is.

P1020186 (3)

Zombies & Witch-Doctors – Nepal – Chapter 5

P1020116 (4)

Route = Kinja (1600m) – Goyom (3220m) – Lamjura Pass (3520m) – Jumbesi (2680m)

Date = 08-09 March

 

D:  How are you feeling?

L: Feverish.

L: And dizzy.

L: And weak.

L: And queasy.

D:  Anything else?

L:  I’ve got a splitting headache.

D:  Drink this.  It’s hot lemon tea.  I’m going to cure you.

D inspects the contents of his first aid kit and pill boxes.  He hands L a handful of tablets.

D:  Here.

L:  Which one?

D:  All of them.

L:  Oh – OK.

She gulps them back, grimacing and retching into her hot lemon mug.

L:  What were they?

D:  Lemsip Max-Strength.

L:  Good.

D:  And one of those magic anti-nausea pills.

L:  I like those ones.

D:  And a Valium, just in case.

L:  Blimey!  I like those ones too.  Will that help?

D:  Dunno.  But I’ve got to get you up a very big hill.

P1020078 (2)D&L wait patiently outside the guesthouse for Angtu, Phurba and the hostesses to finish flirting and taking selfies with each other.  The sky is cloudless but a little hazy.  They climb steeply passing isolated dwellings in impossibly inaccessible places, frilled all around by the narrowest of terraces – some barely a metre wide.  Under one spreading tree – a cloud of white blossom – a man slowly drives a pair of cattle and a wooden plough through the dusty earth.

They are passed by an incongruously dapper image, walking fast downhill, dressed in a tight-fitting cream suit, and carrying a spear with woollen tassels hanging off it.  They look enquiringly at Angtu.

Angtu: Shaman.  Witchdoctor.

D:   Where’s he going, d’you think?

Angtu looks a bit puzzled.

Angtu:  Back to the village.  Every village has a shaman.  It gets passed down from father to son.

D:  But what do they do?

Angtu:  They help people with their problems.  Sometimes a physical problem, sometimes mental.

L:  Does your parents’ village have a shaman?

Angtu:  Of course.  One of my aunties, my father’s sister, died young.  She had left the village because of her marriage, but was brought home and was buried on our family land.  But our village shaman said that my auntie was a witch, and that because we had buried her on our land, it would make our family and the village sick.   And then our whole family and the village became sick!  Then the shaman said my auntie would have to be cremated.   So they dug her up again.

L opens her mouth, wonders what on earth she should say, and closes it again.

Angtu:  And they found that although her body had decomposed, she had beautiful white shiny teeth and beautiful clean curly hair.  The shaman told us her teeth had been biting everyone and her hair had been choking our digestion, and that is why we had all become sick.  So he smashed up her teeth with an axe.  Then my auntie was cremated and our family and the village all became well again.P1020079

Angtu beams at them, pleased with his story.  D&L are riveted and a little bit horrified, and don’t know quite how to respond.  No words are needed though.  Angtu has another tale.

Angtu:  I don’t fully believe, but I don’t not believe either.  Once I was ploughing in our village, when I got bad stomach pains.  Terrible, unbearable pains.  I drank water and tried everything I knew, but nothing worked.  So I went to the shaman.  The shaman pressed the pulse at my wrist.  Then he pressed the centre of my palm.  Then he gave me a mouthful of uncooked rice and raw ginger to eat.  I was afraid of eating it, but I managed to, and within 20 minutes all the pain had gone.

D:  So it worked?

Angtu:  Yes, it worked.  Lots of cultural and spiritual beliefs were part of my life growing up in the village.  A part of the lives of everyone, my friends, my family….  We tried to understand.  In our village, the shaman could see a spirit that no-one else could see.  A boy with long hair, scary teeth and his feet on backwards.  When I was young I would go out at night, on my own, with a light and a little knife, to find this spirit boy.  But I never found him.

L:  That was very brave!  How old were you?

Angtu shrugs.

Angtu:  Maybe 10.  When we went to school, we would ask our science teacher to explain it to us.  We had seen backwards footprints by the river, so the spirit boy must be real.  Our teacher would say – maybe they are forwards footprints.  He would try to help us see things another way.

L:  And now what d’you think?

Angtu: Now I am partly in the Western world, working with tourists for many years.  I believe a little of everything.  Rai people are mostly Hindu, but we are also connected spiritually to the Earth, the sun and the moon.  Shamans help many people.  Sherpa Buddhist practices help many people.  So I visit the shaman, I take Western medicine, and I pass mani stones and prayer flags to the left.  Just in case.

They walk uphill all day.  L moves at a good pace, but becomes more and more zoned out as the morning progresses.  By lunchtime she is almost, literally, asleep on her feet.  They stop at a lodge in the village of Sete.P1020092 (3)

D:  Are you hungry?

L:  Sleepy.

D:  You need to eat.  Soup?

L:  Porridge.

She lies down on a bench inside the empty dining room and falls promptly asleep.  D wakes her up, she eats, and immediately goes soundly back to sleep.  D wonders whether the Valium was a step too far.  As Angtu prepares to set off again, D nudges L again.

L:  I’ve been having the freakiest dreams.  About witch-doctors!

D:  No.  That was real.

The afternoon becomes overcast, and as they get higher, the cloud gets lower.  Their destination drifts in and out of the gloom above.   L staggers zombie-like, onward and upward.

Goyom is not really a village, but a series of dwellings spreading out along a ridge, each one isolated from the next.  Vegetation is sparse, the trunks of trees chopped for firewood stand 2 metres tall, like ghostly figures in the mist.

They are now at 3,200m and it is a great deal colder than it was 1600 metres lower where they started the day.  In their room they make a nest of sleeping bags and duvets.   On one wall is a dim solar-powered bulb, but the corridor has none.  After dark, a journey to the squat loo requires a head-torch.

In the dining room, Angtu has saved them the bench closest to the fire and has been smilingly shooing other trekkers into chillier corners.  Their host announces that his wife has gone to a meeting and so there is no-one to make supper as he is a teacher and a businessman, but not a cook.  Phurba steps in and competently prepares dal bhat for everyone – as well as working as a porter, he says he’s sometimes an assistant cook too.

***

P1020112 (2)Unlike yesterday’s balmier climes, it is 4°C in their bedroom this morning.  They poke their noses out of the nest of bedclothes.

L:  You smell!

D:  Thanks.  It’s not me – I’m being dripped on.

They stare at the ceiling where a wet patch is dripping intermittently onto D’s side of the bed.

L:  What is it, d’you think?

D:  It smells like beer.

Over breakfast, they tell Angtu who in turn tells their host.  His wife has returned and Phurba is off kitchen duty.

Angtu:  He says it’s cat pee.  Definitely not beer.

D:  There’s way too much for cat pee.  And it smells of beer.  Maybe he’s brewing upstairs and one of the bottles burst?

The host looks sheepishly at his wife and shakes his head.

Angtu:  Definitely cat pee.

At 3520m, the exposed Lamjura Pass is not a place to linger.  From the pass the trail slides between a pinch of rubble and rock to descend steeply and interminably through a tall forest of fir and moss-covered rhododendron trees.  L realises that she much prefers uphill to down.  They rest every 30 minutes as, despite her walking poles, she starts to stumble.

L:  Stop, stop, stop.  My legs are jelly.

D:  Angtu?  We’re stopping.  Again.

P1020148 (2)Eventually the terrain flattens and opens into wide alpine meadows with cattle enclosures.  At the edge of Taktor they pause at a tea-house.  On a wall is a large basket – a doko – full of rhododendron leaves collected from the forest for cattle fodder.  Indoors a cat sits on top of the hearth, next to a cauldron of hot water.   Their hostess prepares noodle soup – feeding the fire carefully with wood, and removing it again once it has served its purpose – preserving it as a scarce resource.

On the approach to Jumbesi they pass under a vast cliff painted in bright colours with Buddhist mantras.  A group of teenagers saunter by, returning from school, in immaculate uniform, laughing and chatting and sharing a packet of sweets.  They’d look at home on any high street anywhere, and yet are a world away from the nearest strip of asphalt.  At their feet beside the stony path grow clusters of purple primula.

Jumbesi’s houses are large, tidy and prosperous looking.  At its centre is a school originally set up by Edmund Hillary.  They’ve pre-booked a place that they’ve read about.  They pass one after another smart-looking lodges – none of them the right one, and head out to the scruffier far edge of the village.  It starts spitting with rain.  Their hearts sink.

As a last resort they work their way around the back of the Gompa, the monastery.  Ahead is a newly whitewashed building with beautifully carved windows and a row of bright prayer flags festooned along its front.  They have arrived.   D inspects the rooms with Angtu.  L sits listlessly in the foyer – too exhausted to care what it’s like.  It starts to pour with rain.  D returns.

D:  It’s nice.

They are shown into a large cosy bedroom of varnished wood, with a double bed.  Their hostess points out the electric blanket controls.  L almost weeps with joy.  It is bliss.  They can’t waste a minute of it.

L:  The blanket’s on!  It’s actually warm!  Quick, let’s get into bed.

D:  It’s half past two.

L:  It’s raining.

D:  Oh alright then.

P1020130 (3)

Porters & Pencils – The Trek Begins – Nepal – Chapter 4

P1020058 (2)

Route = Shivalaya (1784m) – Deurali Pass (2705m) – Bhandar (2104m) – Kinja (1600m)

Date = 06-07 March

It’s a pleasant 12°C as L cleans her teeth at an outdoor sink, spitting toothpaste into the dirt.  She can’t spit into the sink as their host is washing his trousers.

She watches Phurba tie rope around their 25kg kit bag, add his own much smaller backpack and then pick the whole thing up suspended from his head by a band of webbing.  He leans forward into the weight and lopes off, arms hanging down in front of him as counterbalance.  L is aghast.

L:  Angtu!  He can’t possibly carry all our stuff like that!  From a single point on his head!  Hanging by a piece of string!  We must do something!

Angtu looks a bit surprised.

L: I thought he’d have a rucksack.  We must get him a rucksack!

Angtu:  He doesn’t want one.  He prefers it like this.  All porters carry like this.

L:  Surely it would be so much better to spread the weight through his shoulders and hips.  What about his poor neck?  And his back?

Angtu shrugs and smiles politely.

L is mortified.  She wonders if she should turn herself in for human rights abuses.  She can’t bear to look at Phurba – at what she has done to him.  D steps in.

D:  It’s a tumpline.  People have used them to carry stuff, all over the world, for ever.

L:  But not any more!  There are modern alternatives.

D:  Patagonia uses them.

L:  The country?

D:  It’s not strictly a country.  Never mind.  The posh outdoor equipment company.  Their founder swears by them.

L:  Oh.

D:  Look – if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you need to carry a weight, you’re less likely to injure yourself with a backpack.  But if you do know what you’re doing, it’s a different story.

L:  What d’you mean?

D:  The general opinion is that it’s physically healthier and more efficient to use a tumpline.  You need to learn the proper posture and technique, and to build up your neck and back muscles.  But once you do, it’s better for you.

L:  How can it be?

D:  It spreads the weight evenly down the strongest bits of your body.  And it doesn’t squash your lungs.  And in an emergency it’s a lot easier to throw off than a rucksack.

They look ahead to where Phurba is stepping lightly and sure-footedly up the trail ahead of them, singing loudly to himself.

L:  So d’you think he knows what he’s doing?

D:  Looks that way to me.

Under a clear blue sky, they climb the hillside high above Shivalaya, the blue and silver of corrugated tin roofs glinting below their feet in the sunlight.  Strains of music from a wedding procession drift up from the village – the steady beat of drums and the unruly joy of a trumpet.  At one end of the river valley, in the far distance, snowy peaks rise up, beckoning.  As the gradient steepens, the terraced fields become ever smaller, like vertical ripples in a pond of vibrant green buckwheat.  Fruit trees are in blossom and the white petals of huge magnolias speckle the forested hillsides.

P1010959 (2)Angtu sets a steady, sustainable pace, leading the way, and L is relieved that she can keep up.  Phurba walks with them, and the two Nepalis chat and laugh their way up the hill.   They cross, and recross, and briefly follow the road.  The road is not actually a road, but a road-sized sandy ribbon, winding its way ever deeper into these hills, promising long-awaited access for remote villages to schools and doctors, markets and jobs.  For now though, the only people on it are builders and engineers and surveyors.  Those on foot keep away – there is too much dust and not enough shade – and no-one has a vehicle anyway.

On a grassy slope a handful of goats and cattle graze.  They pause at a tidy paved courtyard between low wooden buildings and venture inside.  The small room is blackened with smoke from an open fireplace which has no chimney.  On the walls hang tin mugs and gleaming pots & pans.  They sit at a bench and sip hot sweet tea.  Angtu acts as go-between as their hostess offers a taste of curd – a slightly fermented yoghurt – and a ricotta-type cow’s cheese she has made. P1010974 (2)

Angtu:  We have a very special type of cattle here in Nepal.  Very high milk yield.  Called Jersey Cow.

D:  Oh!  We have those!  They come from an island, just off the coast of Britain.  Called Jersey.

Angtu looks sceptical but says nothing.  Their hostess tells them they keep the cow for milk and goats for meat.  They grow buckwheat, maize, potatoes and vegetables.   They talk about the road.  Progress has come swiftly to this area – in just a few years they have also seen the arrival of hydroelectric power, satellite TV, and wifi.  Sanitation, though, remains simple.  Most dwellings have a separate wooden outhouse, with a hole in the floor, placed at the edge of a field.  The waste collects below and is then raked onto the field and used as fertiliser to grow potatoes.

They carry on, ever upwards, on stony paved and stepped paths, now through scrub woodland, to reach the dusty expanse of the Deurali Pass.    A few buildings and lodges huddle in the stiff breeze.

Angtu:  Left!  Go left!

D pauses, startled, looking for hazards in the path.

Angtu:  Look – you must pass to the left here.  Always clockwise.

At the centre of a clearing are five long double-sided mani walls, hundreds of metres of carved stone tablets inscribed with the sacred Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum” or “hail to the jewel in the lotus”. P1010985 (2)

L:  Why left?

Angtu looks at her in astonishment, then explains patiently.

Angtu:  Because that is the path of the world, of course.  Everything in our universe moves clockwise.

L:  Of course.  Stupid.

D:  Stupid.

It’s time for lunch.  D&L sit determinedly in the sun, adding layers of clothing and eating dal bhat.  Angtu and Phurba head indoors to sit by the warmth of the kitchen hearth.

As they begin their long descent into the huge green Bhandar valley, D stops.

D:  Take a photo!

He stands excitedly beside a small lopsided signpost announcing “Way To Everest”.

L:  But it’s only day 1.  We’re over three weeks walk from Everest.

D:  I know, but we’re on our way.  The signpost says so!

Later Phurba stops and rests his load on a wall.  He points at a long low wooden shed with a tin roof, and says something to Angtu.

Angtu:  It’s a school.  For your pencils?

P1020003 (3)L&D have filled their pack with coloured pencils and crayons to give to village schools.  They walk across the dusty yard, where a number of tiny children in lilac shirts and dark trousers are emerging from the building.  They have crocs on their feet and a few are wearing ties.   L&D greet the three female teachers.  They rummage in their pack and hand out pencils and crayons as the kids crowd around them.  The teachers explain that the school has 25 pupils aged between 6 and 15, though today there are only 20.  They seem younger, none of them much older than 9.

The children are arranged into rows.  Despite the interruption it is time for their exercise class.  One of the older boys stands at the front and calls out numbers in English, one to nine, as he leads them through a series of star jumps, squats, toe-touches and stretches.  D joins in.  The children begin to stare, then giggle.  The caller proudly continues his routine and his audience follow, but all eyes are on D.  The teachers laugh out loud and get out their camera phones.  Angtu and Phurba look on, amused.

P1020023 (2)Bhandar is idyllic – a widely spaced scattering of attractive stone buildings on a gentle slope of green meadow.  It was badly damaged in the earthquake of 2015 and lots of rebuilding is going on.  The lodges around the central square are full of road-building engineers, so they continue to the very bottom of the village.  At their whitewashed, blue balconied lodge, sunshine streams through the windows.  The mattresses are very thin.  Downstairs there is one indoor squat loo, but no water has been provided.

L:  Angtu – umm…is there a bathroom?

Angtu:  Outside.  Toilet and also a shower.

On a paved terrace sit several girls, one braiding the long dark hair of another.  Beyond them is a tin outhouse with two doors.  In one is a squat loo, bucket of water and jug, and in the other a concrete floor and electric shower.  At a corner of the terrace is a concrete sink and cold water tap.  These facilities are shared between all guests and family members.  L has a shower.  The water is tepid and the overwhelming smell of pee from next-door makes her gag, but she is not to know that warm water from a shower head will become a rare treat indeed.

Having eaten dal bhat once today already, they opt for pasta for supper.  It’s a mistake.  They are still feeling their way.

***

The next morning they sit on the terrace in bright sunshine.  Angtu looks bleary.

Angtu:  I am so sorry.  Very bad night.

D:  Really?

Angtu:  Very drunk Nepali.  I think he was an engineer.  All that talking and singing and snoring.  Then he would stop.  Then he would start again.  This is not normal.

D:  We thought maybe it was always like that.  We just put in our earplugs.  We slept well.

P1020027 (2)They drop towards the river, peeling off layers of clothing as they go.  The day is warming up under a strong sun.  A track winds around the hillside, where deep red rhododendrons and pink-blossomed fruit trees are in flower.  They descend through wet, irrigated gullies of cardamom plants.  As they dash to dodge the sprinklers Angtu explains.

Angtu:  They need a lot of water!

L:  Do Nepalis use cardamom for cooking?

Angtu:  No – they sell it all to India and China for medicines.

D:  It’s one of the most expensive spices in the world.  I think only vanilla and saffron cost more.

L:  That’ll be why they don’t use it themselves – it’s worth too much.  Like saffron in Italy – it’s quite difficult to even buy it where it’s grown – it’s all carefully packaged up and exported.

Further on, they spot a toddler clinging to a rock built into a stone wall on the steep bank above the path.  She appears to be alone.  Angtu speaks to the little girl.  She replies eloquently, with great dignity.  Angtu scrambles up the bank, carefully picks up the child, gives her a gentle pinch on the cheek, and lifts her over the wall.  He puts her down, she turns and thanks him and scampers off as her mother appears.  She had been looking for a good piece of firewood and got stuck – unable to either get back up the wall or down the steep bank.

They reach the village of Kinja at lunchtime and eat dal bhat outside a smart-looking guest-house.  A sign boasts “hot shower” and “attached bathroom”.  That does it – they decide to go no further.

Angtu chooses their room, which needs cleaning.  He attempts to rally the chatty young hostesses, then does it himself with a dustpan and brush and Phurba.

The hostesses prove to be better at sign-writing than provision of service.  The “attached” bathroom is attached to the building, not the bedroom.  It’s downstairs, with a squat toilet and shared with the rest of the building’s inhabitants.  “Hot shower” translates to “washing up bowl of boiling water into which you add cold water from the loo flush bucket and stand in a shower tray next to the squat loo”.   D&L bathe in the washing up bowl and are careful not to step barefoot into the adjacent squat toilet bowl.

P1020054 (2)Kinja sits where a confluence of rivers force a widening of the valley floor.  There are enormous boulders strewn about, possibly ancient remnants of glacial moraine, as they do not appear to have tumbled from the mountainsides above. The village was badly shaken by the earthquake and there is plenty of construction taking place.  A couple of boys clatter past, to and fro along the neatly paved alleys, with wheelbarrows full of building stone.   The end wall has fallen off a house nearby, and another is crumbling and abandoned, used only to tether a goat from a doorpost.  Laundry is spread out on a woodpile to dry, and a solar kettle reflects the sunlight from its enormous mirrored dish to a blackened pot suspended at its centre.  Flowering nasturtiums crawl over a low wall and a cactus tree provides an incongruous foreground for the distant snows beyond.

They are now drinking local water – sourced from it hardly matters where.  D first carefully squeezes it through a filter and then adds purification tabs for good measure.  It is failsafe and tastes no worse than London water.   Over the course of their trek it will stop them needing to buy and dispose of around 120 plastic bottles of water.

As the afternoon wears on, L begins to feel feverish and cold.  She wraps up in excessive layers of clothing and has porridge for supper.

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