I’m sitting in a little shack, with one old dinosaur computer, writing this blog. To get inside I have to make my way up a precarious ladder, made from branches nailed together. Every time I make my way up and down I try not to think about how likely it is that I could end up in a broken heap 8 metres below!
I apologise for having no photos. We have not been able to take any for the past two weeks. Unfortunately all of our camera batteries were fried – the power here is crazy. Even with surge adaptors! Somehow I have managed to sort out the logistics to get 5 new camera batteries to us from Kathmandu. We have a 12km detour walk to go and pick them up tomorrow. I’ll leave the rest of that story for another day!
I feel like I’ve blinked and we’re four weeks in. Now well and truly settled into the routines of life on foot, our bodies have become accustomed to two servings of dahl baht each day and the joy of carrying a constant load. Or at least as accustomed as they ever will be.
There are many simple pleasures on a journey like this. The pleasure of sitting beneath a blanket of pine trees, perched on a moss-covered root, munching on dry roti. Roti is a flat bread made from flour and water, rolled into a thin circle and cooked on the fire. Sometimes it’s made from corn or other grains. It depends what grows locally. Anything tastes great when you’re walking lots, even plain boiled potatoes for breakfast.
The simple pleasure of slipping on a clean pair of thick merino socks, or sliding into a warm sleeping bag to escape the piercing chill of the air outside.
But it’s not all pleasures. The truth is that these last two weeks have been hard for me. My body is going hay-wire. Things snowball over here very quickly. A nasty fever left me bedridden for a few days. My stubbornness had me back on my feet probably earlier than I should have been and left me feeling weak and dazed. I badly strained a stomach muscle trying to put my backpack on after a rest. Even the simplest task can be a challenge when you’ve been defeated by a Nepali bug!
Water quality is dubious, with many toilets going straight into the river – usually the only supply of drinking water! Washing is done awkwardly, in squat toilets, or freezing cold rivers or at public village taps – with the whole village looking on curiously. A few days ago I found myself bending over a small waterfall, next to a Nepali girl, smiling at the awkwardness of washing long hair. I gazed wistfully back at Tom, jealous of how much easier it is to be a guy here. Washing my hair has become more important as I am on a course of antibiotics for a skin infection on my scalp.
It is hard not to get bed bugs and often we giggle at night, sitting inside our sleeping sheets trying to hunt the little buggers down. There are different types, some almost too small to see and larger ones which make up for their size with speed!
I’ve had the constant shits, basically for the last three weeks. Being on antibiotics probably doesn’t help. Tom has been a little luckier since his initial bug though yesterday, shortly after he was bragging about his “most solid poo in days” he suddenly exclaimed “shit, gotta dash” and made a run for the toilet. Spoke a bit too soon, eh Tom? Silently singing “diarrhoea here we go again” to the tune of Abba’s Mamma Mia makes us feel slightly better, as we squat, daydreaming of the luxury of a real toilet. It takes a brave person to fart in Nepal!
But we’re often lucky to have toilets. On many occasions an inquiry into the location of the nearest toilet in a village has been met with fits of laughter as the local women pointed me in the direction of some nearby bushes – the public “poo pit.” Unfortunately curious locals merely become more curious when a Western woman needs to go to the toilet. There’s little privacy around here, you’ve just got to learn to grin and bear it. There’s always something to laugh at, there is a positive side to every situation.
The terrain has been dry and dusty. Our route is constantly going up, then right back down to the valley floor again. Sometimes we sidle around the hill, passing several small villages. I’ve learned to not look too far ahead on our maps. I’ve decided that ignorance really is bliss. On our Nepali maps the contour lines are 80m apart (not 20 like in NZ) so even when we study our maps closely, we are still blissfully unaware of all of the climbing that is in store.
Some tracks are like treadmills as we fight through a slush of snow melt, donkey piss and mud. Other times we are walking up cobbled pathways, and as I make my way slowly up, I can almost see the faces of the men who placed these stones by hand so carefully and so long ago. Many stones are shiny, having been polished by thousands of people who have walked these paths before us, for generations and generations.
Sometimes we enjoy complete solitude, in wilderness areas that barely see people. Other days it is nice to walk on well-worn pathways, adding another paragraph to the narratives of these trails. I enjoy thinking about those who have come before me. Occasionally I stop and silently thank them for all they have left behind.
We admire Himalayan butterflies – bright turquoise and deep red, and the beautiful colours of native birds as they flit between trees and sing their hearts out in the low lands. Many look like they’ve flown out of the Amazon. We’ve had monkeys swinging out in front of us, looking back with cheeky grins as if they are challenging us “go on, see if you can catch me.” We’ve been mesmerized by incredible eagles, with magnificent wing-spans, reminiscent of the Haast eagles once found in New Zealand. I always think of my dad – I know he could sit for hours and hours watching these mighty creatures glide across the valleys.
We knew we were getting higher when we left the lush green pastures below and met yaks meandering around abandoned buildings in an arid landscape. Many of these areas are only inhabited in the summer months, their occupants moving to lower lands during the winter. Their leathery, wrinkled faces wear the story of a tough life. But they seem happy, content with what hand they have been dealt.
An abundance of prayer flags flapping in the wind usually signifies the top of a pass. More than once, as we have taken our final snail steps to the top, we have been awe-stuck by the sight of white giants towering above us. Beautifully crisp defined ridgelines, knives piercing the sky. I can’t stop myself playing dot-to-dot in my mind, linking up safe routes to the summit. The mountains make me feel small and insignificant, like an inconspicuous speck on the planet. They have seen many seasons, weathered so many storms, are covered in battle scars. It’s impossible to defeat a mountain.
Tom and I have settled into a great brother-sister relationship and we haven’t even had one argument yet. We speak about all sorts of things. Like passionfruit cheesecake. Religion. The things we find odd about Western culture. Good friends. The things we want to change when we get home. The song of the bellbird, tui and the friendly screeching of Kea in the mountains. Our crazy bowel patterns. Future adventure plans. What our next dahl baht will taste like. Other times we walk in silence for hours, immersed in our own thoughts. Time passes quickly when you have lots to think about. We have such clarity of thought here. Things that can seem complicated back home suddenly appear clear. As clear as Blue Lake in the Nelson Lakes National Park.
With each encounter with a friendly local, my desire to learn Nepali properly increases. Occasionally I find myself sitting with a local woman and we attempt to communicate with words, but after a few simple sentences we are completely stumped. So we just sit there looking at each other and laughing. We imagine we know exactly what the other person is thinking. One night, while camped by a stream, we couldn’t tell whether the elderly ladies who were talking at a million miles an hour and making exaggerated gestures were trying to tell us we could be murdered in the night, or that there was a comfortable “hotel” nearby! We agreed to believe the latter, zipped our tent shut and drifted into a deep sleep.
Most days we walk, getting a little closer to Kanchenjunga, but it still feels like a lifetime away. We will not make it all the way before monsoon, not with the route we want to take. But we will both finish our journey in the near future. I’ve committed myself to returning next Nepali autumn, after the snows have melted a little more.
This is not the kind of journey you just shrug your shoulders about and move on from, it really gets under your skin. So far it has merely aggravated my itch for expedition-style and self-sufficient journeys.
We are currently in a place called Juphal, in the Dolpa region. Technically we didn’t have to come here, and it was a horrid, dusty climb up from the valley floor, but the thought of internet and some more interesting food was too appealing. Our excitement at the prospect of nutella, jam, tinned food, pasta and real hot chocolate was met with a deserted dirt runway – the local airport out of action, effectively cutting off Juphal from the outside world. Much of the tastier food is at least 3 years past the use by date. More than once we have bitten into a delicious looking cookie only to be disappointed by the staleness! Our food cravings are never-ending, but provide endless entertainment as we spend hours discussing all of the things we would love to devour. I could kill for a thick slice of home-made bread, fresh out of the oven, coated in real cow’s milk butter – with a bowl of hearty pumpkin soup, a dollop of creamy Greek yoghurt and a sprinkle of fresh parsley on top.
In two days time – at Phoksundo Lake – we head into a restricted area. The Upper Dolpa. A region boasting some of the most authentic Tibetan culture found anywhere in the world. A region plagued by extreme weather and seasons. A region still inhabited by some hardy folk who have learnt to live alongside nature harmoniously, and make the most of what they have. We will be crossing several high-altitude passes, carrying around 12 days worth of food.
If you would like a nice insight into this area, watch the award-winning film ‘Caravan’ or read the novel ‘Snow Leopard’, written by Peter Matthiessen. We met the main star of the film Caravan yesterday – washing his clothes by the river!
I know this leg of the journey will open our eyes up some more. I can feel it in my bones. I’ll fill you in from the Annapurna area, when we reach our next internet access and enter the main stomping ground. We don’t know when that will be…perhaps in a few weeks.
We have our new camera batteries now – yay!