I hope you all are well in your respective cities and managing to keep from fretting too much about the financial and political insanity of the U.S. right now. It has been wonderful for us to be out of news contact during the whole mess; after all, it's all going to play out however it plays out whether we are biting our nails about it or not.
So, the last time I wrote extensively on our adventure, we were stuck in the sweltering stink of Nepalgunj, also fondly known by our group as Nepalgrunge. After two nights we were called abruptly to the airport with all of our luggage, only to sit for a few hours until we were told that the airstrip in Simikot was still too muddy and we were sent back to our hotel. Spirits were low. There was talk of renting a helicopter from the army which would be able to land all of us and our luggage in the mountains, but there was flooding elsewhere in Nepal and the helicopters were busy rescuing Nepalis. Apparently the army - rightly so, in my opinion - believed it would be bad for PR if they released a helicopter from the rescue effort to ferry a bunch of westerners to their trailhead. So we waited. After one more night in Nepalgunj, we got the word that the airstrip was dry enough to land. We taxied precipitously back to the airport and waited a few more hours for the Yeti Airlines flight to arrive from Simikot. A bunch of French citizens had been stuck up in Simikot for about a week trying to get out. Once they arrived, we and our luggage was loaded onto the 2 small 2-propeller planes that disgorged the French, and we lifted off and headed over the western foothills of the Himalaya toward the Humla region in northwestern Nepal.
The flight was beautiful in many ways with distant views of snow-capped peaks and closer views of terraced valleys. A flight attendant even made her way down the cramped aisle serving us cotton for our ears and little candies. I'm amazed that we landed in one piece. I was sitting in the aisle seat and could look through the cockpit of the plane to the windshield. After about an hour, it looked like the side of a mountain was coming at us fast and it turned out to be the runway. We did land safely and bumpily along a mostly dry and hastily repaired (they had to fill in some potholes after the monsoons) runway awash in relief, adrenaline, and applause for the pilot and co-pilot. The plane dumped us and our luggage on the side of the strip, loaded up, turned around and flew off again within about 20 minutes. They pretty much only have the mornings to make runs in and out of Simikot because in the afternoons the winds in the mountains are too treacherous to fly through.
Simikot was a literal breath of fresh air after Nepalgunj. The air was cool and clean, there were dark green trees and some lovely farmland. People were gathering grass for their livestock and it's clear that preparations were being made for the long winter ahead. Simikot is at about 9,000 feet so we hit altitude rather suddenly after our 3 days and nights at sea level, but everyone felt pretty good. We had a terrific lunch at a lodge owned by Sunny Travels - the company with whom we have made the journey. Then we put on our boots, grabbed our trekking poles, loaded our daypacks, and set off on the first leg of our journey on foot. We hiked up about 1,000 feet and then down again a couple thousand feet to a campsite on a river in a village called Dharapoori (my spelling might not all be correct at the moment as I do not have our itinerary with me.) Dharapoori was an extremely poor town and the air was quite cool and damp, being along the river. This was our first night in tents, eating in the dining tent, peeing outside in the dirt (which was actually a relief compared to the toilet in Nepalgunj.)
The next morning we continued our trek, heading gradually uphill. One of our group injured an ankle badly while crossing a stream. Jeff originally thought it might be fractured, but since the bone had not broken the skin, it was not a wound that typically merits evacuation by helicopter. Jeff splinted John and then John rode a horse for the rest of the day, downing Ibuprofen and occasionally soaking his ankle in cold streams or pools along the way.
We camped at Kermi where I had a nice pan bath and Jeff bathed with the Nepalis under the pipe running water out of the nearby stream. Any day we got into camp early enough to have 2-4 hours of sunlight left, I did laundry and bathed. As time went on, that became less and less possible. The third day we hiked all the way up to Yalbang Gompa at 10,300 feet (a gompa is a monastery) and camped in the yard of a boarding school. Originally we were scheduled to have a resting day here, but because we were stuck in Nepalgunj, we first figured we would push on through. Unfortunately, quite a few people had come down with colds and were exhausted from the three days of trekking. Prem, our Nepali team leader, told us it would be possible for us to take the resting day and arrive at the Chinese border on October 2 instead of the 1st. We had our visas to enter Tibet and he said it didn't matter exactly what day we got there. This meant that we would lose a resting day at Lake Manasarovar at just over 12,000 feet, but Prem told us that it would be a much more pleasant rest at 10,000 feet than at 12,000. As we rested at Yalbang Gompa, children came and went from their living quarters to the school and back throughout the day. It seems that most of the lessons were learned through singing and memorization. There was also a volleyball net set up where our sherpas and animal handlers played a rousing game of volleyball while the westerners all watched, astonished and exhausted by altitude and effort.
After our resting day, we moved on with people much more invigorated and spirits much improved generally. The Humla region is quite large and only has a population of about 46,000. This region was the mustering place of the Maoist guerrillas prior to their winning the election in August. The area was terrorized for many years by the guerrillas who apparently took what they needed from the population with impunity - including their sons, brothers, and husbands. Many people during this time moved from the rural areas, selling their land and heading for the cities, especially Kathmandu, where they felt safer. As a result, Kathmandu has grown exponentially over the last decade or so, sprawling as sorely as any American city without urban planning. Our dharma teacher, John Travis, was telling us this morning that when he lived in KTM in the 60s, it was a small village between the two holy stupas of Swayambunath and Bodhnath. Another traveler in our group was telling us that as late as 1989 one still had to walk across a field to reach the Bodhnath stupa. Today it is a concrete jungle, a maze of streets and smog.
The trail in the Humla region was hard. There were incessant ups and downs and it was an incredibly rocky trail in most places. At points we were basically walking up staircases that had been carved into the mountainsides. Occasionally we received cool breezes, but the higher we went, the harder the sun beat down even though it was cooler in the shade. And of course, we began to walk out above the treeline. Each day though, our kitchen sherpas carried food and equipment to prepare lunch on the trail for us. Not only this, but the animal handlers loaded up the horses and zhoks (a cross between a cow and a yak) with all of our duffles and camping gear and guided them along the same rocky, precipitous routes we were walking. At one point, part of the trail had been eroded by a landslide and our guides actually built up the trail as we watched so that we and the animals could cross it, which we all did safely.
The second to last day of trekking in Nepal seemed to go on forever. Each day of the journey we walked between 6 & 10 miles and this day was a 10 miler. We got up to a camp at around 12,000 feet where we were above the treeline, it was windy and cold. We washed briefly in a glacially cold stream and kept to our tents as much as possible, preparing to cross Nara La Pass at 15,000 feet the next day. We rose in the morning, ate breakfast and headed out swaddled in our warmest clothes and prepared for an uphill slog of 3,000 feet. The trail basically petered out into muck and slush and eventually, snow. We scrabbled up muddy hillsides into crunchy snow and made it to the top mid-morning. It was a wonderful moment. Then, the descent.
We tried to leave camp early in the morning, but it was difficult to get a group of 20+ people moving at a similar pace, early, in the cold. The day we crossed the Pass though, it was crucial to leave as early as possible because of the possiblity of rock slides and avalanche as the snow melted in the heat of the sun. Coming down off the pass we crossed a snowfield that did have a small path cut into it from traders bringing sheep, goats and salt over from Tibet. After we got off the first snowfield, we had to remove warmer layers of clothing. We journeyed on through a nerve-wracking morning and afternoon of following a winding path along a mountainside constantly looking up to see if rocks were starting to tumble down from above. The mountainsides basically have folds in them like towels thrown on the ground. In the folds were the refuse of past land and rock slides. As the snow melted around the rocks, some of them would tumble loose and it was difficult to hear them. The sherpas spread out along the trail at the more treacherous places to keep an eye on the rocks, but it was a long day down to the bottom, stopping for a pack lunch in a safe space where we could see over into Tibet along the way.
That day we walked all the way down from the pass back to about 11,000-12,000 feet and the Nepalese border town of Hilsa. We then crossed a bridge over the Karnali River which had been keeping us company throughout most of our trek, and made our way back up a hill to Sher, the border town in Tibet.
We were treated very well by the few Chinese soldiers I saw manning the immigration station. They gave us hot water to drink and we were only there about an hour and a half. They searched everyone's luggage, but were mostly interested in leafing through books and notebooks searching, I believe, for pictures of the Dalai Lama - major contraband, of course. They checked passports and visas closely, matching them to individuals, and we prayed they wouldn't turn us back because there was nowhere for us to go except to trek back through Humla to the dirt airstrip in Simikot. After awhile they let us pile into our Toyota Land Cruisers with our Tibetan drivers, loaded our luggage and camping gear in a huge canvas-covered truck, and we took off with 9 sherpas for Purang, a city near the border.
OK, enough for now. Jeff has had a frustrating morning trying to download photos to our website. We have a lot of wonderful pictures, but trying to get them out there is frustrating from these computers. I will write again soon picking up with Purang.
Be well. We look forward to seeing you all again soon. Love,
Jenny and Jeff.