Our trip is finished! We ended our walk in Besisahar, East of Anapurna, and the last few days of walk were easy with loads of restaurants the very touristic area of Annapurna. A good rest after the difficult month we had: we found the adventure, the relationships with locals and the stunning landscapes we were looking for in the remote districts of Mugu and Upper Dolpa. But it was a very demanding time, both physically and psychologically. Here is the story, with the itinerary enclosed (no images, sorry: our camera is somewhere in the snow at 5600m).
Let’s step back a month ago: we wrote you last time from Gamgadhi, by the Rara lake side after three weeks in the medium altitude mountains of the Nepal West end. As in India we were regularly subject to strong dhiarheas and the pressure to be arrested for not carrying valid trekking permits and not being accompanied by a Nepali guide. But we were enjoying the walk on good and numerous trails in the middle of mountains habited by locals always very welcoming and curious to see foreigners.
From Gamgadhi there were two options to continue our Eastwards walk: a South route, at an altitude between 2000 and 4000m with numerous villages and lanscapes similar to the Far West Nepal we crossed. Or a route going closer to the Tibetan/Chinese boarder in the quite inhabited Mugu District and Upper Dolpa District.
We choose the North route, for the pleasure of walking among high mountains and remote valleys, and to meet a Buddhist population culturally very close to Tibetans. The trek becomes harder: altitude rises, from 3000 to 5000m with ten passes at 5000-5600m, each of them presenting the risk of a forced U-turn if too much covered of snow. Fewer villages, we thus have to carry 2 to 4 days of autonomy in Tsampa (local wheat flour), sugar, biscuits and dried noodles soups. But most of all our never-ending stomach problems wear us out more and more. Some days it is so bad we can hardly stand up. The less sick of us take a part of the other’s backpack load, and we take just enough energy from our ego to manage to go forward a bit more, step after step.
With a 500$ /w /pers permit, tourism in this area is limited to a few treks to go to Shey Gompa and Phoksundo Lake, made famous by the book “The snow leopard” and by the movie “Caravan”. We had to continue living in illegality: when approaching a village we watch it from height: Any big house, antenna or parabola is considered as a potential sign of Army or police checkpoint. We join an Italian trekker, illegal as well, who inform us about the sanction if caught: a walk with a police escort until we reach a road (that is a 1 to 2 weeks walk in this area), then a bus to Kathmandu, a night in a cell and a good little fee. That is what he had last year when I was caught in Mustang Anapurna region. And that is what it will happen to him again when he was a few hours ahead of us and was crossing the village of Bijer while we were observing it from height. Nothing dramatic but enough to stay always careful and avoid the few villages for any suspicious sign, even if it is a pain no to stop to get provisions of food, to rest and to meet villagers always ready to welcome the traveler.
Upper Dolpa district is a kind of Tibetan area inside Nepal. The landscape is very different from the other mountains area of Nepal: it is a high altitude region, very dry as the monsoon does not reach it. Very few fields, no grass, no trees. But a desert of mountains made of falling rocks, with yaks or long hair goats herds from time to time, and rare villages. Villages are similar to their environment: made of stones and dry soil. Only little parcels of potato fields add a bit of greenery in this desert scenery. Wind blows sand dust between houses but also animate the Buddhist multicolor flags installed on every roof terraces: a joyful atmosphere for us, a strong spiritual meaning for locals as the wind read the prayers written on them.
Locals differ a lot from the Indian-like people we met before in far-West Nepal: strong and small bodies, round faces, beautiful red and yellow cloths with a multicolor belt for women and a long knife on the belt for men. We feel their mentalities closer to ours. Tough traders, in addition to the rise of prices due to the remoteness, they left us with hardly any money when we arrived in Anapurna. Houses are well equipped with small temples inside, loads of kitchen tools and good fire oven in metal (with chimney conduit, at last!). Food is more diversified: dalbhat is often replaced by potatoes cooked with local spices and vegetables, they eat more bread, a lot of tsampa and drink loads of Tibetan tea (tea with salt and yack butter). Nothing very good for our stomach problems unfortunately.
THE YORCHA GUMBA
Our high altitude itinerary has been doable only thanks to the Yorcha Gumba. Do you remember in our last newsletter? It was the plant locals were looking for at the base of the glacier of the Saipal mountains in Humla Distric. This plant is a monster: half a parasite-plant, half a caterpillar put in lethargy by the plant. Chinese like monsters, and they love yorcha gumbas. They believe it has aphrodisiac, energetic and cancer curative properties. June is the month of Yorcha Gumba searching for Dolpa district. Nepalese from all over the country and even some Tibetans families with their herds migrate towards the high altitude valleys. Villages in the area are deserted from their population, excepted a few women taking care of their old parents, young babies and fields. We go to the regional medical center in the hope of finding the right medicine for our stomach problems? The center is closed, the doctor went to yorcha gumba searching. Or more exactly, the medical center has been converted into a calling center for the yorcha gumba seekers who want to talk with their family stayed in Kathmandu or elsewhere, thanks to a satellite phone and at an irrational price. Another day we climb up a hill to visit a big gompa? Gompa closed: the monk went to yorcha gumbas. It is difficult to find food as many villages are empty but on the other hand we are happy to see a bit of traffic on the high mountain passes: steps are already made in the snow and trails are signalized by yak and donkey footprints dung. We sometimes have the good surprise to meet a yorcha gumba seekers campsite in the middle of nowhere: a good opportunity to have a rest with a few cups of Tibetan tea, a bowl of tsampa and sometimes a good ration of rice with potatoes cooked in spices. And it is a great opportunity to meet humans in a wilderness area, with evening gatherings in the family tent or around a fire camp. Even in these remote valleys, far from their homes, hospitality is an essential value for these Nepalese. It is just best to make them understand we are not here in the middle of these mountains for yorcha gumbas but for pleasure (that can be hard to conceive!).
In this remote area we often have to camp. Alone in the middle of the mountains, magnificent sceneries at sunset. But at a 4000 or 5000m altitude we are generally more focused in preparing of the cold night to come rather than contemplating the beauty of the nature. Dark falls quickly, we have to hurry to collect yak dung (our logs), donkey dung (our small wood) and dry bushes (the fire-lighter). Someone install the tent, the other one has the hard task to light the fire: bushes are hard to find, if dung do not burn we can forget our hot meal. Therefore we quickly learn to correctly use dung in fires, to boil water where we will add a pack or two of noodle soup and a few handful of tsampa. We get close to the fireplace despite the thick smoke, enjoying the feeling of the hot soup warming our body and thinking about this day: the tensions in our relations, the difficulties, the crises sometimes which are easier to solve now rather than exhausted during the walk. It is also an opportunity to think about the next few days: deciding the itinerary options, between the villages to avoid and the ones where we hope we can find food supplies, between the mountains which attract us and the ones we fear their high pass. The soup is quickly finished, cold comes back inside our bodies. Time to retreat inside the tent for a good night sleep only perturbed by one who push the other one to flip over or by the lack of oxygen which make us suffocate from time to time. Unless it is our stomach problems that require us the painful effort to leave our warm sleeping bag and jump out of the tent to empty ourselves in the freezing cold night.
One day, while we were taking an alternative trail to avoid from heights a suspicious village, we are joined by a caravan: fifteen tibetan men, women, children leading about twenty yaks and horses with heavy loads and followed by about 300 goats and sheeps. We are at high altitude but in a very low health condition. They could easily make a phone call from their mobile and earn a nice reward for the denunciation but they kindly and naturally welcome us in the caravan. We walk with them during three days, worn out by our stomach problems but fed with beautiful moments of sharing; among most memorable days of our trip. We follow the constant walk of the horses and yaks loaded with food for the next few weeks of yorcha gumba search. Walk speed a bit less constant when we slide towards the rear of the caravan where goats and sheeps are always prone to spread on the cliffs to eat the succulent bushes. The two shepherd’s dogs are not able to do anything else than fighting each other or become puppets for the kids, so when our health enable us to do so we become shepherds: running uphill and downhill to regroup these bloody stupid animals on the trail, with loads of stone throwing and insults (it looks like they do understand French swearing! Much more efficient anyway than trying to whistle like the other shepherds do).
End of afternoon, we install the campsite: unloading the yaks and horses, putting up a big tent and lighting a fire inside with the dry yak dung collected during the day. One prepare the Tibetan tea, women have a wash, comb their hair and look each other hair for lice before doing the milking. No more than a litre per female: that is far from the production of our milk cows. Milk is then warmed to make yoghurt which will then be patiently shake in large jars until transformed into butter. Unless the milk is served warm as a drink or with rice. Rice with yak milk poured over: maybe the best meal we had during the trip. We force ourselves to refuse a second serving because our tired bodies have difficulties to digest but also because there is not enough food for everyone. Men swap food with “the hard drink”: the tchang, an alcool made from the fermentation of rice. Not so good, they drink it less for the enjoyment than to federate the community: served by the caravan leader only, drank at the same time, the plastic jar started should be emptied, the empty jar should be replaced by a full one. With our poor health condition it is best to stay on the Tibetan tea. Beside us a grandfather is making a fuss of his two years old grandson with love. He chews little spoons of tsampa before serving it to the baby and rocks him. We join the grandfather with some “Au clair de la lune” and others “Dors mon p’ti quinquin” before going to sleep as well beside the animals snuggled up on each other in the freezing night.
CONCLUSION : experiences we will remember ever
Being at the foot of a high pass, where a U-turn will soon become more hazardous than walking forwards.
When we leave or condition of trekker to follow locals on their way to yorcha gumbas, leading us through the inhabited mountains on trails known only by them.
When three weeks of diarrhea, stomach pain and strong antibiotics leave us with no strength at all on an easy mountain pass that a 5 years old girl go over pulling a yak from the snout. Or as well when one see himself in his brother’s face burnt by the sun, skinny, dirty and bearded after having lost 10Kg, a big part of his digestive faculties and almost all appetite.
When in mental confinement between brothers we have to suffer or deal with the consequences of our physical and psychological discomfort: susceptibility, nervousness, harshness, impulsiveness.
When one is laid low by the illness and the other one forget his fatigue to help: carrying an extra load, going to get some water, cooking, finding a place to stay for the night.
When we contemplate the beauty of nature. Stunning views. Steep cliffs, icy summits, snow-covered cols. Stony and dusty trails where our feet leave prints the wind bows away. Nobody else in the mountain than a few yaks, the wind and us . The time stays still , a few clouds animate the mountains with shadows and lights.
Posted : 23.06.2012