The India and Nepal Diaries Part 5
Contains some strong language
The names of other people appearing in this diary have been altered
To a degree this is a story about not very much. Mainly about being young and slightly stupid in places and cultures we didn’t know or understand. Everything told here did take place and it is more or less an exact transcript of my actual diary. And so, on that note, I do not advise anyone to do anything we did. However, we learnt a lot from it and, I think, came back from our exploration as wiser people. I hope you may also.
We were up early but typically not as early as we wanted to be – about 7am. The packing of bags as effectively as possible commenced and then we went down to breakfast. This morning the breakfast was bigger than it had been the day before. Again pancakes and potato fries. I suppose they wanted us to have a good meal before we started our trek. We were certainly thankful for it.
The bill was settled and we went outside to have a photo. They asked us again if we were taking a guide and seemed surprised we were not. Their daughter painted a red streak on both our cheeks, I assume as a blessing of good luck to help protect us. We had seen a picture of two Frenchmen who had stayed a few weeks previously on their way to Pokhara. They had not had the red streaks on their cheeks!
Photos were taken and then we were walked to the start of our path by the father with the rest of the family waving from their home. Anticipation was in the air. Behind us lay the village, in front of us the path. We shook hands and with that we were on our way.
The path descended deep into a valley with a glacial river raging at the bottom. We crossed on a bridge that sat bowed across a massive bolder and stared in awe at the power of the water around us. On the other side was a large hydroelectric plant in the process of being built. Workers were about welding the massive 6 foot wide pipes. Their sleeping dorms had been decorated in very detailed drawings of Hindu gods, women, vehicles and animals.
We panted out way up the access track zig zagging its way up the mountain. Yet again the sun was beating down. The bad weather still had not arrived.
At the top of the construction site the track continued horizontally around the hill. Round the corner there were some men washing in a stream. We asked them the way to Kori (the collection of huts we had been told where on top of the mountain). They laughed and pointed back the way we had come. We asked if they could show us. They didn’t understand. After a minute, two people came along. They were both in their twenties, but one in work clothes and the other in a smart black shirt and jeans, flip flops and clasping an umbrella to shade him from the sun. This made for a slightly odd picture in the middle of a building site, but they were laughing and heading our direction so we followed on trying to ask for directions. They wanted to take photos with us. We were red faced and sunburnt and didn’t feel particularly picturesque, but there didn’t seem to be much choice in the matter.
On we went, then they pointed to a spot where there was a small gap in the undergrowth and bellow which there had been a minor land slide. It was totally inaccessible. “You’re kidding me!” I almost shouted, my hart sinking. “No” they said. “This is old path. This is the new one.” It was just around the corner, but didn’t look much better. We went up, a growing feeling of worry developing as we ascended into the forest, the track only just visible.
Our path split. We tried left and it lead nowhere. We tried the other direction and it emerged onto stone steps rising up the hill. This was more like what we were expecting.
Half way up (or at least a point that felt like it should have been half way up), we came across a man sitting on a rock who asked, in broken English and hand gestures, “No guide? Just two (of you)?” We nodded. He raised his eyebrows.
As we went, we found or were able to see the occasional farm house perched randomly and isolated on the mountainside. Certainly a reclusive life.
At about 3pm, after walking continuously up, we emerged into a clearing in which there was a neat looking hut and loo building and a small heard of water buffalo. This was us. We were over the first lip of the hill. We had had a reasonably relaxed walk with a plentiful supply of spring water all the way up. We seemed to have made good time.
The hut was basically four walls with an internal one to make two rooms and doors at each side. There was a low second wall outside to stop the buffalo getting near. The floor was made of hard wooden floorboards, just raised off the earth underneath. Many of the planks were slightly bowed so as to make them uneven. In the corner of each room was a fire pit, but no chimney.
‘The Chimney’ seemed to be a novelty yet to be discovered in Nepal. Nearly all the places we had stayed had a fire pit or stove of sorts to cook on, but none of them had a means to let the smoke out other than the windows or gaps between the roof and the walls. The fire simply smoked the place out.
The rest of our afternoon was spent snoozing, reading, writing and eating our first meal of dry instant noodles. They came with spices which you were supposed to add to the liquid base. We added them to the noodles like you would the salt to ‘Salt and Shake’ crisps. They were not too bad, but definitely not something you would want to eat regularly.
As the sun set, we retired early with our sleeping bags to the hard floor and tried to sleep. No position was a comfortable one.
At some point a rather pretty white bellied rat came in through the window, watched us, and then scampered back out.
Finally I fell into broken sleep.
An appalling night’s sleep. We both woke up aching, hips sore from resting on the unforgiving surface bellow us. We packed our stuff away and ate a breakfast of Bombay mix. I tucked my trousers into my socks, did my boots up tight, and put on the waterproof trousers all with the aim of avoiding the forest leaches.
We set off up the slope. Our water buffalo friends had apparently moved up the hill as well for as we walked we found the sludgy excretions they had left behind.
At intervals as we walked up the path we would come across flat open grassy areas, many of which contained the skeletal frame works of old shelters, all of them to the same design. Often the path would disappear at these points and we would have to stop, do a quick scout to find it before being able to carry on.
Two thirds of the way up the mountain the rainforest type canopy of trees gave way to bamboo, and then to grass and shrub land. Somewhere between the bamboo and the shrubs we burst into an open patch of the most amazing meadow style grassland. There was a huge array of flowers, all in bloom, with everything from Pitcher (fly catcher) plans, to orchids, to wild strawberries. Overhead we saw an eagle of some sort and there were so many small woodland birds and butterflies it was ridiculous.
A sign post. The path split, but only one side labelled. Dudh Pokhari it read, pointing to the left. Dudh Pokhari was the lake we intended to go to and stay at further along our trek and this signpost took us by surprise because all the previous ones (what few there had been) had simply said Kori. Also our map showed a left turning that went on an indirect route. The sign post directed us one way and our map the other. We went right and put our faith in the map.
After about 15 minutes the path disappeared into an open patch up grassland and then ribboned out the other side becoming many small indistinct trails. We kept on going hoping we had made the right choice. After a few minutes more we reached a ridge that promptly dropped off the other side down into a wooded stream channel. This was obviously not where we were meant to be. We had turned right too early.
We knew we were not too far from the crest of the hill. In optimism we started to climb directly up the wooded slope, clambering through the undergrowth and abandoning all hopes of following a path. At the top of the stream channel it gave way to a steeply inclined bank covered in grasses, dead trees and amazing smelling herbs. We decided to climb up, our rucksacks off balanced us and making the task a perilous one that threatened to throw us back down the slope should we lose our footing. We discovered that grass tufts made good hand holds and foot stops and also that hanging on to dead rotten trees for support was a bad idea.
I think the moral to this is always follow signposts.
Two hundred yards up and the ground began to level out; now mainly covered in brambles and Himalayan balsam. We waded on through, finally making it to the top and “oh what a view”. On the other side of our mountain was a snow covered peak. It was still so high above us that we had to look up at a 45 degree angle to see its top which disappeared into the cloud. These could only be the Annapurna Mountains.
Form our vantage point we could clearly see the full breadth of Annapurna II, the second highest. We could also see, slipping off the mountainside down into a valley, what we had been told was the lowest glacier in the Himalayas coming down to around 3,600 meters above sea level (whether this was true or not we never worked out).
We carried on to find our next hut of refuge. There was an elderly shepherd couple whose dogs would not stop barking at us and who again looked surprised by our lack of a guide. We asked them where they stayed; apparently they had four places. Their home at the moment was a wooden frame work much like the skeletal dwellings we had seen further down the mountain, but with a tarp pulled taught over it and split into two sections, one for them and one for the animals.
We found a nice spot and stopped for a break and to admire the view. It promptly became very cloudy, giving us a 360 degree surrounding of grey water vapour. It started drizzling. We carried on walking.
Further up there were some men sitting under another wooden canopy structure with a fire and playing cards. I assume that they do not in fact get very much wind up in this region of the mountains as these makeshift buildings did not look strong and were held down by very little. Their tarpaulin walls definitely wouldn’t offer much shelter from a gale.
The men pointed us still further upwards. We stomped on, now wet and exhausted only to find that the trekkers hut was semi derelict, it’s floor covered in sheep shit and its wooden roof displaying more holes than a cheese grater. One end of the building had pretty much fallen down. To make matters worse the separate loo was filled in and appeared to have not been entered for the past decade or so. A proud sign outside was inscribed with the name ‘Kori’. In desperation and hunger we collapsed outside trying to work out what to do.
Even though clouds kept on coming and going making visibility poor we were sure we could see two more huts further up the hill. I dropped my rucksack and went to scout them out. One looked just about habitable, with a dirt floor and fire pit, but more importantly it had four walls and a roof, all in good condition.
We set up camp, chucked our stuff inside and then tried to make a fire with damp wood and pages out of Leon’s note book. It just smoked us out. There was still no chimney. In the end we got some embers, ate a packet of noodles in the dark and laydown to a smoky cold night.
The next morning the mountains all around us were outlined by an incredibly clear blue sky. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, still wearing my clothes from the night before, to stare blinking into crisp air. The night had been chilly, but I had slept surprisingly well. Nevertheless this was too early to be up. Poor Leon who, without a sleeping bag liner, had been cold since our pitiful fire had died – so most of the night – crawled out a minute later.
We took pictures, packed, ate a breakfast of biscuits, and left round the mountain.
At this point the path simply followed a row of black and yellow poles that sat on ridges, each one just about visible from the next. We walked between them, joining them up like some giant dot to dot.
The path followed our route on the map, then turned right in front of a peak instead of left behind it as the map showed. Fearing a mistake like our adventure up the bank the previous day, we followed the poles and not the map, assuming the two would somehow come together. We rambled up the most amazing flat bottomed, U-shaped valley. Once carved out by a now vacant glacier.
Halfway along we stopped for a quick bit of lunch and so Leon could catch up on some much needed sleep. We each ate our packet of dried fruit and nut and lounged in the sun.
Just as we prepared to set off a cloud rolled in and we found ourselves suddenly plunged into a world of grey mist and gloom. Once again drizzle dripped from the sky. To make matters worse our path of poles suddenly stopped. It just literally disappeared and we found ourselves being guided by small irregular mounds of stone probably put in place by past walkers and guides. Between the mounds ran a worn section of earth, the path, just about discernible from its surroundings.
This lead us on round to the right of yet another peak, when we had expected to go left up the main end of the valley. We followed on, assuming there must be a path up a ridge round there which lead up and over to where we needed to be.
As the valley sides started to steepen, scree slopes appeared crosscutting the path which got completely lost amongst the stones. It was as much guesswork as anything else to work out where we needed to go. Our only signs of human movement were occasional pieces of dropped plastic (noodle, chocolate, crisp and biscuit packets mainly, with a fair few packets of chewing tobacco thrown in). I can safely say I’ve never been more grateful to see human garbage.
Lead by the limited trail of litter, we made it round the mountain to a raised section between two peaks, the slopes rising up too steep to climb on either side and dipping off in front and behind us. This point was marked by a stone ‘view point’ bench and a whole load of mini cairns and standing stones. We collapsed on the bench, exhausted and worried by the paths continuation on what the wrong side of what now turned out to be two ridges.
Leon had downloaded a google maps GPS locator onto his phone and it was already proving to be invaluable. Using it we were able to place ourselves on the map and work out roughly where the path must go. Suddenly realising how far we now thought we were going to have to go and also how late it was getting, we set off along the path at a pace. We were slowly discovering that everything seemed to be much bigger than it appeared on the map. We seriously needed to scale up our perceptions of distance.
The path did not turn left as we had anticipated. Instead it continued straight along the mountainside, now dropping instead of rising and slowly taking us away from where we wanted to be – Dudh Pokhari. In despair we kept going, now not sure we would make it anywhere before nightfall, but knowing that a path must lead somewhere. To the left of us was a steep slope rising into the sky. To the right an angled decent into a cloudy valley that we could not see the bottom of. I found myself cursing our decision not to follow the map.
Every now and then we would disturb a resident Pheasant. They would cluck hysterically making us jump out of our skins before zooming down into the valley like some miniature fighter plane, disappearing into the cloud.
We kept going. It got later.
After what seemed like an age we saw another set of cairns and standing stones and in the middle of them a sign post. There were three paths leading from the spot and the sign post had two labelled. One said ‘Sikles’ pointing the way we had come, and the other was some place we did not recognise and could not find on the map. It’s odd, but all the Nepalese signs we had seen (which wasn’t many) seemed to assume you were coming from a certain direction and so only labelled the other routes.
We studied the map, studied the GPS and studied the map again. One path looked hopeful. It finally turned left and was descending into a valley. Leon went to scout it out. It looked good. We followed it, went round a bend and bellow us the most amazing scene stretched out. A meadow of flowers and grasses, with a meandering river then dark mountain peaks on the other side. On our side was a path stretching out into the distance past a glassy smooth lake, and in front of that, huts with smoke, people and animals. However it was not this that elated our spirits. Looking at the map we realised that we had somehow taken a short cut past Dudh Pokhari and that this was in fact the path down the other side towards Syange – our intended emerging point along the official Annapurna trek circuit. This meant that though we had accidentally missed an amazing view spot, we were now on the downward stretch. We had no more climbing to do and the end was in sight. Our fears and worries vanished from our thoughts. In that moment we agreed to walk on through the night so as to make Syange by day break and so we could shower, eat and sleep. We would be safe and back in civilisation.
In a state of shear happiness mixed with a weird desperation and a feeling of ‘19 never dies’, we walked down the stone steps, entered the valley, passed the houses with three Gurkhas outside and a fire within, and carried on out the other side of this blissful microcosm. Up past the lake we went, stopping at the top of a rise to eat our last packets of instant noodles and to admire the last of the evening sun.
As we sat and ate a cloud, borne on rising hot air, rose up the valley like some great wave. Then, as the sun set and the air cooled, it slowly sank back again. It was 7.30 pm.
I got out my head torch. Leon took out his spear SIMless phone and my locked Nokia brick, both of which had a torch and a full battery, and we headed off into the growing darkness.
Please click to see The India and Nepal Diaries Part 6