OK, for a kick off, I have to say that if I were on the Nepalese tourist board, I would do my best to get the country redesigned with more downhill than uphill in it. A tall order, an oxymoron, even, but it is a heartfelt sentiment, cries a still creaky Bob Cranwell. Now, on to the tale.
I say without reservation that I have an admiration for the real happy spirit we encountered in the porters and other workers in the mountain valleys who always called a “Namaste !” as we passed, offered us chai or advised about our intended path. This last, however, was not always accurate, though.
For example, starting out from our overnight stop at Dhunche (where our small amount of sleep was rent by dozens of dogs howling fighting and creating mayhem), we were told it involved a gain in height from 1900m to 2100m – a fairly easy first day in the hills.
Reality crushed this idea by presenting a series of monumental ups and downs, slowly attaining the modest 200m rise in altitude. It must be said that the views were stupendous, the Trisuli River far below, draining out of Tibet, and our tributary valley of the churning Langtang Khola gave ample reason to stop and stare about.
Part of the reason we were especially sensitive to route information was the size of our packs, mine 26kg, Alison’s 21kg, measly at the side of the normal 50kg the porters took. There is really nothing better to put you in touch with the world you are in than to carry what you ‘need’ on your own two feet. Admirable sentiments ! I quote from my diary –
“Our second day’s trek initially brought us very steeply downhill, our packs conspiring to push us ever faster down the sinuous path to the main river valley, which we then followed upriver, sometimes steeply, usually gradual climbing next to the glacial torrent thundering away on our left. The trail led through dense, moist and shadowy woodland on the North facing slope of this East-West trending valley, but baked brown and bare on the South facing slopes, dotted with trees and even the occasional succulent.
About 5.30 in the afternoon we came to a metal bridge over the main river, with cracked, broken and decaying planks across the 30 metre drop into the frothing icy water. It made us quite nervous, but we had to cross anyway as we saw our path snaking away on the other side. So late in the evening, with dark creeping up the valley and cold air coming down, we were dismayed to find the 2 lodges near the bridge to be dark and dingy places, mere bamboo matting for walls and sited in very damp places. We decided to keep on climbing and came to the steepest section yet, with recently trodden routes across last monsoon’s landslides.
The bridge ‘hotel’ owners told it was “very uphill” over the next one and a half hours to the Tibet hotel, where we hoped to meet up with 2 Aussies we’d met the day before. This was one of the few true statements about the route we took. If they said uphill, it meant hard work for a local, while ‘level’ meant merely our idea of uphill ! That was our greatest test of stamina, in the darkness, stumbling over wet and rocky hillsides until out of the gloom we saw a smoky yellow light through the window of a squat building. The owners of the bridge lodges hadn’t mentioned this lodge, maybe because we hadn’t asked, more likely from mercenary inclination.”
The lodges were for the most part quite similar in concept and construction, with a cooking area around which the family of the household gathered, along with any passing locals. This part was often strewn with blankets and skins, and dense smoke seeping through the thatched roof was normal. Most of the lodges had small partitions into a second part which usually had a raised platform for sitting or sleeping on.
Generally made of planks, sometimes of strong bamboo matting, there was also a covering of some sort, unspeakably filthy. The normal sooty atmosphere, sometimes added to by a small fire in the lodgers’ accommodation, could not have been solely responsible for this, and we became convinced that in the dry season, all this stuff would be carried out and trampled in the dirt to rid it of bugs. Despite the griminess, the bedding was bug-free, though I guess the temperature put a limit on biological activity.
Life in the lodges was quite convivial, and we were usually relieved to find ourselves in a warm shelter for the night, often a seasonal home as low as the yaks could be kept safe from winter. The animals seem to suffer at altitudes lower than 2500m, so somewhere to stay nearby was handy, and now of course, there were wandering foreigners looking for food and shelter, too. Often we passed the evenings swapping stories, gathering information about our coming route, things to look forward to or beware of, while soaking up the primeval warmth.
The Maitre d’Hôte meantime, chopped vegetables, stirred soups, served hot lemon or chai and slapped Tibetan bread against the clay oven. The ovens usually had two or three holes in the top, and exact sized pans covered them, with a large pot of water constantly refilled and heating. Wood was sparingly fed into a hole at the base, along with anything else combustible, the temperature regulated by a slate or lump of wood blocking the air hole. Our host in this lodge was especially fastidious, as he went outside to clear his throat and spit instead of launching a gob at the hearth.
There was always the question of ablutions. A pee in the bushes was easily arranged, but lodges required a different approach. Most lodge keepers would provide a small bowl of quite hot water to hand wash and maybe rinse the sweat and grit off our faces, that was about it, but it felt like luxury at the end of a day. Disposal involved often elaborate, at times unnerving arrangements, given that all the valley lodges were on quite steep hillsides. Our facilities on our first night were a bit of a surprise. A few yards away from the lodge stood some sturdy looking bamboo poles making a platform, with bamboo matting providing screens. Inside was a hole about a foot square.
Make sure you empty your pockets before going in there, I thought, but that was the least of it, for a stout stick was propped against the matting. A first visit clarified the purpose of the stick as it was immediately apparent that something was beneath the hole – scuffling and grunting sounds emanating from what turned out to be a pig in a bamboo cage underneath. Oh, my god ! A more instant cure for constipation I could not imagine, (though few visitors had that problem).
Emerging from the steep sided valley after a few hours toil, the next night we spent in Langtang, the village and commercial centre of this extraordinary valley in Northern Nepal, fringing the Tibetan plateau. A nice crisp skyline of icing sugar mountains all but encircling the upper valley, save for the manic plunges of the river, the Langtang Khola, which have ripped a narrow gorge through the valley’s lower reaches.
Langtang lies at 3500 metres above a very distant sea level; the rough boulder and mortar walls of the 75 or so small buildings providing housing and shelter for around 300 people and their animals. These tough creatures were predominantly yaks, but also some hardy looking sheep and goats and a few very woolly horses, reminiscent of Icelandic ponies. We slept in a barn that was used on the ground floor for accommodating the younger yaks, at night time five older yaks sauntered into the courtyard outside, grunting amiable to their young, inside.
They were then milked by the grandmother of the house, and combed vigorously by a younger girl to build up their store of rough but warm wool to make clothes and blankets with. ( I later bought a hairy jersey made from yak wool in Kathmandu, and had to spend some time picking bits of straw and dried yak shit out of it !) We found the yaks quite docile, on our necessary nightly forays to the toilet shed when we had to cross their courtyard. With each beast jostling the next for space, and horns longer than my arms’ span, we were glad of their tractable nature.
On the day we arrived in the village, we had seen some yak of quite different temperament, which made us more grateful that our critters were quiet. For the most part, our seemingly never ending climb had brought us through dense montane forest, on narrow and muddy paths; the crashing brown river ever nearby and drowning out all sounds as our eyes were distracted by silvery beams filtering through the leaves – son et lumière.
At other later stages, as the valley widened out, we walked more easily over more open ground, sometimes quite flat, though often the track threaded a narrow line between boundary and prayer walls. In just such a place we spotted about 8 yak coming down the hillside, heading toward a gap; we decided wisely to hang back for a little while. All except one passed through in a gait between lumbering and mincing on well placed feet. One had a different view on things, for some reason it suddenly gathered momentum and crashed into the wall-end, then backed off a couple of steps and head-butted the wall hard, again, the only damage apparent was to the wall, and the beast shook his head sharply as he followed his friends up the track, to our great relief.
We did see quite a few competitive incidents between yak, and a lot of merry galloping around, but on the whole seemed unconcerned by humans passing, which is fortunate for the Nepalis at high altitude; aside from a few potatoes and small plots of barley, yak were a major element in the meagre agriculture. These animals were here overwinter, (our visit was in December), protected by the lower altitude from the heaviest snows and high winds.
Doubtless many would survive, but they were more productive and better looked after in the valley by the people who depended on them for so much, hides, wool, milk, fuel from droppings and sometimes meat came from this Himalayan avatar of the familiar Highland cow. As predominantly Buddhists, the village people ate meat only after a yak fell off a ledge for example, as they would not kill an animal, but made good use of one that had died, thus preserving their karma and their nutritional state !
The diet of Nepalis generally seems to consist of masses of rice – like 2 kilos – and a cupful of lentil curry. Dal bhat, found everywhere. It certainly keeps you going, but it does take some getting down, especially for days in a row. We necessarily carried packs of noodles or cereal bars amongst our alternative supplies, though these were very limited as we just couldn’t carry a lot besides our warm and waterproof stuff and sleeping bags.
In Ghora Tabela, on the way up, we had certainly discerned meat in the pot at our lodge, and after various questions, which always took some time, we eventually found that a yak had been killed the previous night by a snow leopard. Our minds immediately leapt to thoughts of powerful predators springing in the dark to gorge on their kill in crisp cold starlight. Our thoughts also strayed to the evenings so far where we had ended the day still steeply climbing in pitch dark, although a snow leopard would be unlikely to have interest in humans, and our real danger came from slippery stones or from the possibility of hernia from carrying our packs.
Stepping into the village, we had moved, it seemed, to many centuries past. The houses clung to a main track through the settlement, with walls and courtyards funneling a continuous stream of animals, sometimes without herders, of laden travelers intent on their goal, carrying sacks, bundles of firewood, or bales of wool. A surprising amount of the traffic was made up of children, tiny kids in thin shirts with ruddy wind-burned faces and bare feet; only older children had footwear, wellingtons or laceless tennis shoes, often split and revealing chafed and cracking heels.
Our chosen lodging, of the six or seven to choose from, was run by a couple and grandmother, who had clearly had childhoods identical to the kids we were worrying about, and had survived to become happy and robust people. They were clearly happy about the circumstances in which life had cast them, spending virtually their entire lives here, encircled by snowy peaks. The husband had been as far as Trisuli Bazaar, three and a half days walk away, while the woman had only been to the second village a day’s walk back down the trail. The uncomplicated happiness with what they had was something that stayed with many foreign visitors from seeing the lives of Nepalis and hill-people generally.
We rested up and enjoyed the roughly bucolic atmosphere of Langtang village, wandering around the area without packs was like floating ! We spent an age watching in amazement at the rudimentary but functional loom on which fabric emerged from skeins of wiry hair. It was also, being so light in the openness of the valley, an excellent place to do a bit of washing, and catch up with journals and letters to be posted back in Kathmandu.
An exhausting day later we were at Kyendjin Gompa, the monastery snugly squat against the mountainside like cushion moss in a cosy nook; this offered shelter from the constant biting winds dropping ferociously from the 7000 metre peaks around us, and from the awesome ice-falls creaking over mountain gullies not half a day’s walk from us. The sun is gone from here by 4pm, not returning until around 8 the next morning. Temperatures were usually around 0˚C, but crept down to -15˚C during the course of the long night.
At the Gompa, at 3800 metres, we tracked down something we’d been looking forward to for some time – a dairy. More accurately, it was a woman who made cheese butter and yoghurt with milk from the yak and their halfbreed relatives, the dzo (a cross between hardy yak and productive cow). This small enterprise in this settlement of 7 houses and a monastery was a form of aid, coming from a Swiss agency to help people stay productive over the winter months.
The people of Langtang are among the poorest people in the world by many measures, but remarkably well adapted to life here. We met two visitors to Langtang working to estimate what might help in conserving the forest and other renewable resources in what, to many is just a scenic, bleak ‘wasteland’. The pair had worked extensively in Africa and Asia, and thought this area suffered particularly, because in the best year, in the best circumstances, they could only produce a half of what they needed to survive.
In previous years, this simply meant that many of the male population had left the valley on a short or long term basis to work in nearby towns like Trisuli Bazaar or for years at a time in Kathmandu. Money could then buy what they couldn’t produce. Recently, in these less visited valleys, just as on the more popular ‘circuits’, tourism had taken a place in te valley economy, bringing mixed results.
Of course they could bring in work, reducing the need to leave their homeland, but also a growing dependence on money. These tourists brought in new ideas, and thought they respected the land, but until recently still took down woodland for campfires, even though it was clear to see where, and why, it would never grow again. They sometimes came to seek and admire other ways of life, and then wanted to buy everything . . . . a refrain I often heard in far flung subsistence communities.
Thankfully, a number of those sorts of issues have been addressed over the years and the remoter areas and people of Nepal are rather less under threat than before, although erosion, deforestation still play strong roles in the landscape. What did have a huge impact, of course was an earthquake in northern Nepal which was centred near Langtang.
Inaccessible by road, and very difficult to reach by helicopter, due to the high mountains around, this meant the mountain people were largely thrown on their own resources which were few, and more depleted than ever, and on their own resilience which is without doubt the human characteristic which allowed them to survive here in the first place.
Catch yer later
Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant