Day 5 – Bumpy rides & the onset of sobriety
I don’t know if it’s the pre-dawn start or the worry that I’ve left something really important behind, but my brain feels in a foggy whirlwind as I sandwich myself between bags, bottles, poles and humans in the jeep that’s to take us to Besisahar… 8 hours away. This is our opportunity to make our initial bonds crammed up against our guide and porters, Dilli, Gyalzen and Nima, but it all feels a bit awkward in a very British way.
As we leave the outskirts of the city the great Kathmandu valley opens out in front of us, dirty tin shacks selling everything from second hand tyres to roasted fresh sweetcorn line the main road that winds its dusty way scored along the hillside that falls sharply to the river below. Scooters dice death with highly decorated lorries, horns blare and the rising sun heats us just enough to wind down the jeep’s windows and choke on the dust cloud that envelopes us. We stop for a quick but tasty breakfast of veg stuffed paratha and lemon tea, visit the last sit down toilet we’ll see for quite some time and all pile back into the jeep to continue to Besisahar. Tin shacks turn into brightly painted houses of ever growing proportion as we venture further into more fertile terrain with all available spaces given over to growing all kinds of vegetables, rice and even the odd flower.
We pull up in Besisahar, jump out of the jeep, and straight down a huge drain in Susan’s case. Luckily for her it hadn’t been in previous use, unluckily for her it means she starts the trek with a badly bruised knee and a chunk missing from her shin. We’re stopping for lunch already – something I’ll have to get used to – and as I’m still quite filled with bread I opt for that all-time favourite nibble; mo:mo. Dick move #1. I assumed mo:mo would either be premade and come out of the freezer (oh my western ignorance) or would be as nimbly constructed as those in Mo:mo Hut (see previous post). Nope. 1 hour later we are still sitting waiting, Dilli, our guide, hopping around not wanting to appear he wants to get moving and failing. I feel awful about causing such a delay and vow not to make this mistake again in the coming weeks.
Eventually we load ourselves, swollen bellies, swollen knee and all our gear into and onto another jeep and begin the long and bumpy drive to Chame. We bounce along a very rocky, steep track, the driver skilfully avoiding huge lumps of rock in the ‘road’ that would see us bouncing off right and plunging down into the gorge below and to our certain, quick and painful deaths. I’m loving it. People pay good money for this. As long as I protect my head enough it’s all jolly good fun. That is until I spy the driver pull what appears to be a lucky charm from his pocket and kiss it before turning a particularly hair-raising corner. Eventually, through drips of rain, claps of thunder and the fading light, we and our aching necks pull up at a charmingly painted wooden teahouse. After some confusion with bed arrangements – it’s obviously assumed both I and Susan form some kind of weird harem for Tom – we are offered a hot shower. Hot shower roughly translating as warm bowl of communal water in outhouse. I’m not fazed, I was expecting this, just a lot higher up. Down here I thought there would be slightly more sanitation. But I take it anyway. After such a long and sticky journey I’m glad to be some semblance of clean.
I feast on dhal bat – curry & rice, the first of VERY many on this trek – and learn the ropes of Yatzee. By 9pm the place is deserted, the fire in the kitchen is out and it’s already -2 so we call it a night. We have an early start anyway and without the aid of booze none of us knows how we’ll actually sleep.
Day 6 – Chame – Humde
I slept! I actually slept a better sleep than I was expecting when at 10pm last night I was listening to something scuttling around in the pitch darkness by my head. And I’m excited, for today we walk. We fill up on Tibetan bread (a bit like a large savoury bready doughnut) and tea before chucking our backpacks on to make our way up the gorge towards Pisang. I can’t stop smiling in awe at the incredible scenery, overjoyed that we are finally here after all these months of preparation. I spend the next 4 hours periodically fiddling with my maladjusted backpack, often trapping Gyalzen’s fingers as he tries to help – my first lesson in ‘let the Sherpa do it’, and reminding myself that although it’s so pleasing to be looking at the view, looking at where I’m putting my feet would occasionally be helpful. I just want to take it all in and remember everything.
We arrive to Pisang in just 4 hours. Our itinerary dictates we are to overnight here. It’s 10am. We drink tea whilst Tom persuades Dilli that to stop here really would be a waste of time. Dilli relents and the decision is to continue to Humde, a small town with an airstrip another 4 (or so, this is Nepali time afterall) hours away. I’m delighted as I have just visited the ‘facilities’ and they are nothing short of appalling. It is with a little dread that I hope that wherever we end up, they’ll be better.
Reaching Humde I’m ready to stop. 15 miles for the first day seems like quite a bit and it crosses my mind that this is more than the mileage I clock up in a day’s walking in Snowdonia, and there I go back to a hot shower, heating and a few beers round the fire in the pub. My feet will surely ache tomorrow and we have almost 3 weeks of this. The teahouse we stop in is friendly and comfortable. It even has a hot gas shower, which reaches a range of temperatures over the duration of cleansing. The jar of peanut butter on the window sill is an intriguing addition. Aside from our little team of six, Humde appears deserted. On questioning we find that the last plane to take off from here left 5 years ago and as this isn’t a usual stopping place for trekkers we are prized for our presence. The evening brings a communal fire and good home cooked dhal bat and we sleep well from 8.45pm, a time I haven’t been sent to bed at since I was about 7 years old. Tomorrow we trek to Manang where we’ll spend a couple of days for acclimatisation.
Day 7 – Humde – Manang
We wake to a glorious day. Standing on the roof terrace I clean my teeth with stunning views of Annapurna II and I feel I’ve never been so awake and so energised. Although I feel slightly guilty looking over the side of the roof terrace where I gobbed my toothpaste during last night’s clean, that it fell straight onto a pathway. Thankfully I can see the white splatter and that it didn’t hit an innocent passer-by (there’s no one in town after all). I slope off to find an alternative spittoon.
After a sugar stuffed bowl of apple porridge and equally sugar stuffed lemon tea, we begin the two hour walk through this dusty and strange landscape. This is a plain that stretches from Annapurna II right the way along to Kangsar,a two day walk away and is arid and windblown, with big big chunks of rock soaring skyward on either side and frozen cascades of glaciers reaching the plain floor. It is simply breath taking.
The teahouse we stop in is a charming, friendly, and again deserted place with big glass windows to take in the views. Filled with stuffed, cuddly yaks and the odd medal, it appears that the owners are serious contenders in the annual International Yak Race that takes place not far from here. I wonder how international ‘international’ really means in this case, but am willing to be proved wrong as there are flags dotted around the place from China, Tibet and, intriguingly, the UK.
We plough on and stumble across the jewel in the area’s crown, the Bhraga Monastery. Balanced upon the hillside under towering pinnacles of rock, it’s one of the area’s oldest monasteries and houses hundreds of Buddha statues. We climb the vast staircase – with some audible gasping for breath, we’re now at around 3500m, that’s two and a half Ben Nevis’ worth of up – and find an artist quietly sketching the scenery, battling against the fierce wind to create a beautiful, detailed pastel drawing. Fearing we may have disturbed his ‘zone’ we head inside the main monastery building and are presented with a dark and dusty wooden construction filled with colour, statues, offerings and masks. We cannot help but be drawn by the spirituality here; it’s an incredible treat to experience.
We continue on to Manang, arriving at the Tilicho Hotel, our place for the next couple of nights, and are very pleasantly surprised. Stunned even. A clean (ish) room, sit down toilet – yay! – a hot shower that is both hot and a shower and a pretty communal room with a huge log burner fuelled by yak dung (this doesn’t smell as unpleasant as you’d imagine and at these temperatures any heat source is amazing). The architecture is typical of what we have seen so far, wooden boxes built on wooden boxes built on wooden boxes. The windows may not fit, it may be -7 at night but it is charming and I’m a little sad we’re only staying two nights.
After lunch Dilli gives us a quick tour of Manang ‘city’. His hosting technique sees that we simply follow Tom down all the alleyways whilst Dilli hangs back, hands in pockets, clearly worrying about getting yak dung on his trainers. Manang is beautiful, if far from the definition of a ‘city’. A cluster of old beige brick and wood buildings clinging on to a cliff face shaped into sharp gullies by the wind and erosion, top and tailed by chortens and prayer wheels with a mix of smoke and incense carried on the breeze. I’ve fallen in love with this place, it oozes tranquillity.
I sit out on the hotels roof under the imposing ice fields and snow slopes of Gangapurna to paint this incredible place. Tomorrow we’re going up there.