Toils and rewards

I’d seemingly been walking for ages, when I grasped my watch. Three hours had passed. I stopped for tea at Goyam, height of 3220m. I had ascended 645m. It had been arduous. A real slog of slow steps, one foot in front of the other. One at a time. Ever. So. Slowly. At a tea shop, a toddler sat beneath a sign advertising Yak cheese for sale. The toddler, joined by a thin grey cat, played and smiled. I tucked into garlic soup and yak cheese potatoes, quickly cooked by the owner. Across the path a series of flattened houses and following my meal, I would see several houses up the path, equally as destroyed. A soulful reminder that nature rules these mountains and the people here are guests clinging onto the edge. Immediately after leaving Goyam the trail seemed to steepen more than I thought possible. Was I climbing or trekking?! The beautiful primordial Rhododendron forests became sparser. The odd lightning struck tree flanked an otherwise trench-like path. Was the path formed in a riverbed or did the summer monsoons strip the earth away? It felt like I was in Tolkien’s Rivendell. A beautiful stray mongrel, part wolf-like, part-Labrador like followed me for several hundred metres. Every now and then I skirmished to the side of a path to allow cattle, mostly yak-cow hybrids to bundle by. Their heavy weight shook the loose pathways as I perched precariously on a ledge just inches above.

Since leaving Sete, I had been regular passed and overtaken by a young pair of children heaving 20kg of potatoes. The 12 year old girl and her 14 year old brother had stopped to talk with me several times. They rested their sacks of potatoes and commented on my weight load and walking pace. These local Sherpa children were polite and invited me to their parent’s lodge for the night. I politely declined and stated my end point of Junbesi. Eventually their strength and experience allowed them to zoom ahead of me as I rested and took in the panoramic scenery. Several Kathmandu to Lukla flights passed lower in the valley beneath me, rising to fly over Lamjura La pass and mountain. This was my aimed route, over that curving ridge way off in the distance. The plants and trees became bare of leaves and greenery. Even the mosses and lichens dulled in colour. I started to tread on ice and snow. It lasted seemingly for several kilometres. I reached a Stupa and several closed lodges. Looking up at higher ground, I placed my rucksack down and looked at the towering boulders and scattered Mani stones, scrolling prayer after prayer. I turned around to be greeted by something grim. A blizzard.

The clouds, thick as ash, grey as the darkest of skies, and swelling with tumbling snow and a menacing amount of local wind. I turned forwards, aware that inside ten to twenty minutes that storm was going to hit me. I took in my surroundings. An open creaky wooden toilet was not adequate. I had to keep going forward in the hope of finding a lodge. I stumbled between two large and saw an open door set inside a wooden single storey building. The sign, Lamjura View, bellowed out, hope and sanctuary. A Sherpa man gestured me to enter. We talked and drank black tea. He said I was lucky to avoid the raging blizzard outside. In the corner the teenage boy and girl I met on my trek sat talking. They were the man’s children. The mother had died in the devastating earthquake. The family, strong and very together, ran this lodge and farmed potatoes lower in the valley. To some they live an idyllic life in a mountain paradise, but to those with open eyes, a harsh lifestyle with nature battling all odds was clearly in play. After maybe thirty minutes the storm dissipated and disappeared completely. I stepped out of the hobbit-hole like door, thanking my hosts and wishing them all the best.

Immediately after leaving the lodge, the crest of the mountain pass folded away. On the steep descent, after only a few short metres the snow line ended. Green primordial trees towered high and strong. Thick orange-brown trunks crammed the slopes and a path wound tightly beneath them. Each tree blanketed in moss, a coat of rustic pubic hair belying that of the ancients.

Large steps downwards, occasionally showing a dusting of snow that had breached the thick tree canopy overhead. The sky disappeared above, hidden by foliage. Still air and an eerie lack of sound pinpricked my ears up, alert, listening for any discernible sounds. Few came. Not even birdsong. The climb to 3736m, along a ridge that hit 3300m and finally 3530m had been relentlessly tough, on icy slippery paths with a sheer drop far below. The descent started as a welcome break. It ended almost on tears. The downwards path seemed to go on forever. Down, down and down like listening to Radiohead and mulling over personal depression on a grey autumn day, faced with a long cold winter ahead. A massive downer. Down. Seemingly eternally cast downwards.

A shriek of an eagle came from my left. I looked up at a cloud covered peak and cliff-face. I suddenly felt extremely small, like an ant looking up at a tree. To my fore, a broken patch of land emerged from trees. Ruins of a once glorious looking alpine-style lodging scattered across the ground. The damp looking wooden timbers, long rotten and rock walls draped hitherto and with no order.

My legs dragged as I walked the final kilometres downhill, slipping slowly into the valley surrounding Junbesi. Few lights twinkled between trees and from the village below. I sought a lodge. Between dark trees, I found a row of lodges. I opted for Apple Lodge, despite my dislike for Apple products. To my surprise, I linked up once again with Will and John. We compared thoughts on the day’s trek. They had arrived earlier than me, having departed from Sete much earlier too. My twelve hours up and up, gave me good reason to go to bed earlier. That and the cold. I found my room pleasantly warm. I pulled my sleeping bag shut and drifted away into a peaceful sleep.

I opened the curtain. The view looked out onto an apple orchard. In the distance, I spied a new roadway from Salleri, south in the valley, stretched up the long deep crevice of valley into Junbesi. This was a sign of modern times and a connection to the outside world, likely welcome that would advance the region’s prosperity. Maybe even bringing silence to busier villages between Jiri and here. Many jeeps from Kathmandu travel to Salleri now to allow Everest Base Camp – and other popular wanders in the region – treks to save money compared with flights to Lukla. Yesterday’s 15km of apparent endless up and down walking.

The day would involve 17km ending at Nunthala village, 2194m. I departed without breakfast and arrived two hours later at Phurteng. The lodge proclaimed to all, “Everest View” as a name. It was accurate. The Himalayas beckoned up the valley. Sure enough, there it was, to the left, a pyramid-topped peak with clouds whipping from the summit. Pure beauty. This was the fifth day of trekking and I had already seen the world’s tallest mountain, above sea level, with my naked eyes. I ate my Sherpa stew and Tibetan bread, satisfied at this special moment. Scaling Taksindu Pass and passing Taksindu monastery complete with helicopters buzzing back and forward to assist with construction work, I descended to Nunthala, along slippery muddy and mule-dung strewn pathways. A trio of Lammergeiers (Bearded Vultures) glided overhead. This is a beautiful bird with around one metre of long narrow pointed wings and a stocky tail. Their underbodies light in colour and black underwings a light coloured heads. Having seen Himalayan Serow, deer-like mammals that day by a waterfall, and also Siberian Weasels, it had been a most pleasant nature day.

I arrived in Nunthala, checked into a pleasantly warm lodge, ordered a Yak cheese pizza which was 90% cheese and 10% base. No tomato or vegetables. It was brilliant and crispy around the edges. The sound of mules passing by with bells tinkling one by one reminded me of days spent by Welsh harbours enjoying the sound of boats gently rocking on calm waves, with the sound of cables rattling on metal masts. Most relaxing. I chatted briefly with a Canadian couple, only the fourth and fifth foreigners I had encountered in eight days of trekking.

Will and John stayed nearby in a different lodge. Our leapfrog casual way of bumping into each other was becoming part of the trail. We marvelled at how fast the French man, Vincois moved. He always set out later than us, smoked a chimney’s measure of cigarettes and managed to beat us to every end-point. Not that it was a race. Trekking is all about managing your own pace and not rushing. You take in your surroundings, manage the weight you carry and your body. Your feet need tender loving care, as does your meal management and nutritional requirements. Energy and comfort is the key to performance, aside from hydration and mental belief.

Leaving Nunthala, 2194m, with contrasting views of the Himalayas, cold and icy beyond fertile hills and mountains, the morning mule trains carrying freight to and fro, passed by, bells ringing gently and softly. The odd yak train interrupted the passage of mules to give a continual hazardous flow of passing footpath traffic. The paths generally being no more than a metre wide, meant for a tight squeeze often and regular brushes with cargo ranging from gas canisters to cement to wood and occasionally polystyrene blocks as high as the animals themselves. Passing through Chhirdi (1500m – the river crossing of the mighty Dudh Koshi Nadi glacial river), Jubhing (1680m), Kharkikola (1985m) to reach Bupsa Danda (2340m) resembled a Tour de France stage with a mountain finish. This was the least tough of all the trekking days today, a gentle meander with a climbing at the end. From Jubhing to Kharikola, a patchwork of gardens and some well-maintained ornamental pathways gave a tropical feel. Banana plants, flowers and other tropical fruit mixed with higher altitude plants. One tree even had an umbrella on top. The mystery as to why remains unanswered but it did make me laugh and raise my spirits as school kids skipped by on the way to their mountainside education places. Gumba Danda at the foot of the climb to Bupsa Danda was very busy and queues to pass a packed suspension bridge held me up for twenty minutes as mule trains passed over and over again. On stalking the steep trail to Bupsa Danda, it immediately became apparent that this village had far more hostels and lodges than previous villages. The spur of a Lukla to Tumlintar trail and a higher concentration of hydro-prayer wheels and monasteries are the probable draw.

At Bupsa Danda, I stayed at Sherpa Guide lodge, overlooking a valley with the Dudh Koshi Nadi glacial river passing way below. The walls of the lodge were covered in summits that the Sherpa leader and owner had reached. 14 of the top 20 Himalayan peaks were there! Two children including a toddler who ran through a wall (MDF panel, it may have been) played around the room. I spoke with a Sherpa guide, Lakpa Nuru Sherpa, on a week’s holiday from his home village of Namche Bazaar.

The Dudh Koshi Nadi glacial river is fed by glacial run-off from the gargantuan Cholatse and Ngozumba glaciers. It thundered deep in the vale below. The morning walk involved something more serene, Orange-Bellied Himalayan squirrels, chipmunks and many unique birds accompanied me on my stroll skirting Kari La at 3080m high. In Paiya, I stopped at Dreamland for a late breakfast and met Will with his father John. We discussed the trail and John, being a former Nepal tour guide from over 15 years ago told me of how the trail used to be bustling with porters, guides and much more freight feeding the lodges from Jiri to Everest Base Camp and Namche Bazaar.

Having a late breakfast at Dreamland, with their penned motto of, “Come as a guest, leave as a friend,” I mulled over my thoughts. Nepal is like a distant, yet loving brother, one who has gone through the best and worst of times, together and apart. Seeing Siberian weasels along the route connected me with nature, seeing fish painted on buildings reminded me of the high levels of illiteracy. Many political parties favour symbols to gain votes, because words simply cannot be understood. Amongst the scuttling Highland shrews, the pathways were clean, save for the odd lonesome horse going to the bathroom. At stages I had been followed by faithful-looking dogs, perhaps looking for scraps of food or simply as a guide through perilously precarious passes.

Stood by the river Dudh Koshi Nadi, rapids crashed against rocks and solid mounds of pebbles. The glacial blue water, deep and powerfully displacing all water flowing beneath it. Ice lined the rims of calmer shallower pools, set back from the main violence of malevolent torrential channels. The sounds resembled that of Viking god Thor crashing an iron hammer in the sky. Passing through the villages of Muse, Chheplung (2660m), Nurning (2492m), Phakding (2610m), and Monja (2835m) before reaching Jorsalle (2740m), the river kept me company. Ever present, ever powerful. I walked against the flow of the river, safely dry and up bank from the crushing waters. Missing posters of a trekker, who fell into the river in November, issued a stark reminder of the dangers of those waters. The water flowing was equally relaxing. I felt like Clark Kent when he walked and formed his fortress of solitude. Awakened.

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