Tag Archives: Ringmo

Little Donkeys, Little Donkeys… – Nepal – Chapter 7

 

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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.

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Tibetan Nuns & Black Dogs – Nepal – Chapter 6

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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.

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