In the pathless woods and mountains...

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May 15th 2011
Published: June 22nd 2011
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There aren’t many places in the world where you can gaze upon sights that few, whether local or visitor, have seen – or will ever see. The route up Mount Kilimanjaro seems to be a well-beaten highway; the path to Everest Base Camp in Nepal is apparently strewn with litter; crossing the Gobi there are very few moments when the view is not dotted with at least a couple of gers. Even two years’ ago, I’d walked paths in Bhutan that, if not in the guidebooks, nevertheless saw the regular footfall of local people, with their horses and yaks, going about their daily lives.

This year was different. For three days we didn’t see another person. Tshetem himself hadn’t walked this route in five years, and had only ever brought two groups of tourists here before us. While in the summer there might be a few more rural people in these mountain pastures with their stock, in the late spring we had the still snow-covered mid levels of this particular part of the Himalaya to ourselves.

In 2009, we had done a three-day trek and my only regret had been that it was too short. Just as I began to get into the way of it – enjoying the fresh light of the early mornings, wonderful scenery, time on our own, the sense of achievement in conquering the uphills and downhills, the total escape from manmade noise, simple but delicious food, early nights under the stars with only forest noises for company – our time ran out. My foremost request of Tshetem this time was that we try a five-day trek. (I’d love to do a much longer one, but I was conscious I couldn’t ask for much more from friends with budget- and time- constraints.)

Embarking on any kind of trek is a lesson in your own strengths and weaknesses, independent of how anyone else might be coping. If your feet are hurting, if you’re cold and wet or running short of water, how will YOU cope? If the day seems never-ending and camp a distant figment of this morning’s imagination, how will YOU deal with this? If someone else is struggling, how will YOU react? If everyone else seems to be galloping up the trail, but you’re struggling for breath, how will YOU cope? And that lesson is played out in public: there’s no hiding behind bravado or using some pretence at a photo stop to catch your breath. Everyone can see all too well just exactly how you’re reacting. In this sense, it’s an extraordinarily intimate experience and, once again, I was conscious that I had brought this particular group of people together. How would they themselves cope, and how would they react with each other?

The corollary of this, of course, is that a trek can bring out the best in people. Like every hardship-based reality TV show, it makes and strengthens or irretrievably breaks relationships.

It was going to be an interesting five days…

As we drove up to the Chumi Valley’s prayer-flag strewn Kiki La pass where Nancy and Dorji would say farewell to the trekking party, it began to spit with rain. It didn’t seem to be the most auspicious start. Wondering whether or not to stay in the car until the shower had passed, we emerged, reluctantly donning rainwear and putting covers on daypacks. The setting-off photo-shoot seemed half-hearted. Our packhorses would only join us the next morning, so it was only the six of us leaving now, shambling off, as if we expected to be back in a few minutes.

That impression took a while to wear off. The first day’s route took us downhill, past a woodsman’s cottage, over a river, and up the other side, through the villages of Karcho and Chungphel, following, all the while, a blaze of cleared land below telegraph wires. We were going to spend the night in the village of Shuri; Nancy and Dorji had toyed with the idea of joining us that evening, underscoring how close to civilisation we still were.

But the next day we were out on our own for real. Within twenty minutes of leaving Shuri and the curious children who’d poked solemn faces around our tent flaps in the morning, we were rounding the edge of the hillside and beginning a long ascent of the valley towards snow-capped peaks, an ascent that, if we’d known, would take us a day and a half, 25 km and another 1,500m on top of the nearly 3,000m at which Shuri sits, to complete. Only a single yak herder’s cottage and his small herd would suggest that we were not entirely alone on these slopes.

In the meantime, Shuri – whether or not pooh-poohed in
distant peaksdistant peaksdistant peaks

If we only knew it, we'd be getting a lot closer to them over the next couple of days...
advance for its degree of “civilisation” – had shown us the most tremendous hospitality, and at a time when we most needed it. After basking in warm sunshine at lunchtime on the first day as we sat with our backs to prayer-flag masts above the village of Karcho and as, a little later, we lounged in the lush grasses high on an alp while Tshetem tried to establish which route our errant kit had taken, we reached Shuri just as the skies darkened and the first drops began to fall. We took shelter under the overhang of the village headman’s family temple. Tshetem had gone off to renew acquaintance with the family, and soon came back with an invitation for us to visit the temple and then drop in for tea. How incredibly civilised!

The family temple was an extraordinarily lavish devotion to the gods, with the grandeur of its statues and décor. I’d seen similarly incredible shrines – to my eyes out-of-proportion to their surroundings – in farmhouses and villages elsewhere in Bhutan, but this temple went one step further. To my lay and Western eyes, this temple would not have been out of place as a lhakhang
yours trulyyours trulyyours truly

Never miss a chance to scribble - lunch on the first day [copyright Lorraine]
in a monastery or dzong with the splendour of its altar, prayer books and murals. Outside the main door was a collection of tsha-tshas – in clay-and-ash form, the family’s ancestors still present to keep an eye on things, to see that all continues well in the village. We dallied inside, incredulous of the temple’s gorgeousness in these simple surroundings… but also conscious of the continuing rainfall outside.

But we were not to be cast out into the elements. When we emerged from the temple, we were ushered inside the family’s big house on the edge of the village, urged to make ourselves at home on rugs scattered around the crackling stove. We’d already seen a couple of the family’s four generations, a young be-kira-ed woman with her small and solemn-faced daughter, the latter reluctantly and shyly persuaded to wave at these strangers, but unwilling to go further than her mother’s skirts to make our acquaintance. As we ascended the steps to the main living quarters on the first floor, we passed the old people, the little girl’s great-grandfather lying out on the balcony, wrapped up in blankets, but still smiling a welcome at the guests, and his wife
Tashi delek!Tashi delek!Tashi delek!

Supping arra and buttertea in Shuri [copyright Lorraine]
at his side. Inside, it was their daughter who seemed to be in charge of making us welcome. First we were plied with buttertea from a seemingly bottomless flask. No sooner had we dented our first mug-fuls, than more was urged upon us. But it’s rich stuff, even if it was less salty than the first version I’d encountered in Tibet four years’ earlier, and there’s a limit to how much many Westerners can drink. No matter: our mugs were swiftly replaced by small bowls, filled to the brim with homemade arra. One toast, “Tashi delek!” – with drops flicked left and right to the gods – and our bowls were again replenished. With only crunchy “zao” (homemade Rice Krispies) and sweet biscuits to soak up the liquid, we were soon feeling extremely relaxed in the warmth of the stove and the arra… and time passed most agreeably… Just as we were in danger of taking root for the evening, Tshetem reappeared, soaked but smiling. He’d gone to meet the driver who was bringing a couple of the camp staff and our equipment, earlier wrong turning now rectified. Now our camp had been set up in a nearby field; we had a home to go to. A little reluctantly – though the arra had, by now, stopped flowing – we took our leave of our generous hosts, and wove our way back to the field where bright orange tents were out to greet us.

It is hard to describe the upsurge of emotion that the sight of camp can create in the tired trekker. Nothing looks quite so beautiful at the end of a hard day and/or when feet are cold and wet through with snow and slush than a little collection of – in our case – orange tents. I whooped with delight when I spotted the tell-tale orange at the end of day two, when I’d taken with a serious pinch of salt Tshetem’s encouraging and oft-repeated, “Not much further…”. On day three, we were supposed to be trekking for only half a day, but, with the altitude and the depth of snow and ice and slush through which we had to plough, it was proving to be a very long half-day… but the sight of distant orange – even though the ongoing rain/hail meant that there would be no lounging around outside during our afternoon off – raised our spirits inordinately. In the early afternoon of day four, when we were all coping much better with altitude and we’d nearly left the last of the snow behind, we were actually surprised to see flecks of orange when we topped the highest pass at 4,410m, but nevertheless we weren’t going to say no to the chance to hole up in the warmth of sleeping bags and Thermarests to escape the next wave of cloud and fog rolling in.

We’d been warned that the second day was going to be a tough one. Already at 2,880m, we would have to ascend a further 1,200m (almost the height of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain) before reaching that evening’s camp, but the route would take us through a fabulous variety of vegetation. Soon after leaving Shuri, we began to climb through dark Tolkien-esque forest, where moss-enshrouded branches seemed to reach out for us, and roots conspired with the mossy rock-strewn path to try and trip us up. Frustrated, the forest spat us out and we found ourselves on a steep grassy slope which, every so often, would level out into a pretty green alp. Some of these were clearly summer pastures, though only one was already inhabited. Here we held back, conscious of the yak-herder’s noisy dogs. He tied two of them up, leaving the third to come towards us, barking happily with his tail up, but the dog only approached us so far, as if aware of the (to us, invisible) boundaries of his master’s property. When the yak-herder came over to exchange a few words with Tshetem, the dog continued to bark sporadically, confused at his master consorting with the enemy.

All morning we had been able to look across to the other side of the valley, nearly uniformly dark-green with its pine-forest covering, interrupted by splashes of bright green of the occasional clearings – individual and well spread-out golf course holes, or so they appeared. The river at the bottom of the valley was invisible, too far below us beyond too-steep hillsides for us to see or even hear the water. Way up to our right were the snow-peaks we had first seen as we set out from Kikila Pass the day before, distant and imposing, but gradually looming larger and larger as we ascended the valley.

Now, replete with lunch, we turned away from these mountains, and climbed the last stretch of slope towards a fabulous forest of tall blood-red rhododendrons. As we did so, a large wild yak bull appeared, looming over the edge of the alp as if bemused at these curious-looking two-legged impostors daring to venture through his domain. Birdcalls changed: we left behind the cuckoo whose call had tantalised us for much of the morning, echoing improbable distances up the valley. Now we were teased by the chirps of tiny flitting warblers and the sporadic squawks of hidden pheasants. Gradually, as we climbed, the forest changed again, taking us through dwarf bamboo and into giant spruce, mosses and ferns underfoot spotted with the delicate lilac of primroses and the deep purple of primula. It was a long slow afternoon with the altitude beginning to affect a couple of us, but no-one objected to slow progress through such rich landscape. Just before we emerged from the forest, Allyson-the-ski-addict caught sight of a patch of white off to one side. Yes, we were now above the snowline. Excited, I scrambled off the track to photograph the white stuff, not realising that, two days’ hence, I’d be relieved finally to be leaving it behind.

Out of the forest, 500m above where we’d stopped for lunch, we found camp already set up. We’d met the packhorses briefly earlier in the day when they’d overtaken us on the track. Now they were out grazing, only partially hobbled, and we quickly gauged who was the equine top dog. Meet “Naughty Horse”, one of the two stallions who, given half a chance, would spend all his rest-time chasing the mares and nipping them on the butt. As a result, he spent most of the time tied up, albeit on a long rein to let him still graze, but he did not give up lightly, spending hours at a time whinnying his complaints. We developed quite a soft spot for him.

Mr Puntso was the horseman, bringing only his grandson along to help, although some of the camp staff trekked with them during the day to help keep the horses in line. Although Mr Puntso’s English was almost as negligible as our combined Sharchop and Dzonka, he beamed happily at our every approach with a grin that could light up the greyest afternoon. We were also soon to discover that his fire-building skills –
snow leopard???snow leopard???snow leopard???

No: on closer inspection, musk deer
even in the pouring rain – were second to none. We were trekking through a spiritually important place for the Bhutanese. The local mountain, Dipdila, has 108 lakes scattered around her mountainside, 108 being a sacred number in Buddhism. Although none of us were Buddhist, we felt this spirituality keenly and Mr Puntso burning armfuls of damp herbs every evening in an attempt to appease the gods and ensure our safe passage the next day seemed entirely appropriate. After all, nothing else was going to help us out here. In the meantime, we enjoyed the huge fires both to warm ourselves on evenings when the temperature was near freezing, and to dry out boots and kit sodden by the day’s trek.

The next morning we were soon well in amongst the snow, but this time fog too haunted our first hours on the track. The horses overtook us early on, appearing like ghostly visions out of the mist, their bells echoing around us both before and after their passing. Our destination was relatively easy to gauge – up to the first shoulder, around the back of the mountain and over the next shoulder, down into the mists – so
Naughty HorseNaughty HorseNaughty Horse

... and the toilet tent
the girls and Jeff took off at their own faster pace. I was still concerned for Steve who, recent fitness activities notwithstanding, was suffering in his first brush with altitude. Altitude is Not Fair. There is no obvious reason why one person should suffer, and another carry on unaffected. Fitness and age and prior exposure seem to have little to do with it. Not having encountered altitude before, Steve was faced with a double hindrance: first, his symptoms, struggling for breath and therefore reticent to continue to drink and eat – an imperative I had learnt on the Tibetan plateau – and second, the embarrassment and confusion that he should be suffering in this way. Tshetem and I stayed with him, alternately encouraging and gently bullying him, to take his time, catch his breath, but to drink little and often from his water-bottle. Lorraine had already given him her remaining stock of cereal bars for added fuel en route.

I didn’t mind going slowly. We were rounding the furthest corner of the valley that we would reach on this trek, yet we could still see way back down the valley to Shuri, the road to the village a deep scar in the side of the hill, and village roofs occasionally flickering in tentative beams of sunlight. Up on the shoulder, we caught up with the others, and the girls and I enjoyed a quick yomp up a further 30m to the first of a series of rocky peaks. We didn’t dally long up there: the fog was coming down again and we were getting hungry. Down on the shoulder, Tshetem and Jeff had not been idle. They’d hiked over to a small snowy valley amongst the boulders where some animal tracks had been spotted. From the shoulder, we dared hope that they could be snow leopard – this is their territory after all… – but they turned out to be those of musk deer. No less exciting from a conservationist’s point of view – musk deer have been hunted to near-extinction for the allegedly beneficial effect of their musk glands (the IUCN classifies them as “vulnerable”) – but, I have to confess, everso slightly less exciting than the elusive big cat (which is one grade further down on the IUCN scale at “endangered”).

Going downhill is not all it’s cracked up to be, particularly not when you are tackling deep snow over unpredictable terrain. We had lost sight of the packhorses, and our destination wasn’t immediately clear. Within no time several of us were suffering damp, if not wet, feet – even the best boots aren’t expected to combat these kinds of conditions for long – although our bodies were still hot from the physical effort and control involved in our progress. Karma and Kezang, the camp assistants, were walking with us as they did every morning, helping with stragglers but, more importantly, carrying lunch, so we knew that we had food with us. But the fog and the rain that had by now started were not conducive to any kind of lunch break, even though it was getting late. We ploughed on, leaving snow and slush behind for water-laden bog. Dry feet were a thing of the past. Finally, we rounded a corner and saw the magical sight of orange canvas in the distance. Karma and Kezang increased their speed: lunch would be served in the comfort of the old red dining dent. “What are you waiting for?” said Allyson over her shoulder as she sped up, “I’m following Lunch!”

What Tshering could rustle up in a tent in the middle of nowhere had to be seen to be believed. Not only would he magic up porridge, homemade muesli or cornflakes and hot milk for breakfast, but there’d be omelettes or scrambled eggs with some kind of fresh bread, or even, on our last morning, pancakes (and this was after our morning wake-up call of tea/coffee and a bowl of hot water for simple ablutions). At the same time, he’d be cooking up breakfast for the Bhutanese staff, lunch for us and boiling water to replenish our water-bottles. Lunch would then be packaged up in a large tiffin, each of four or five separate vegetable dishes and/or ema datse and/or rice in a separate container, still warm when it was served to us somewhere on trek 6-8 hours’ later. When we arrived in camp each afternoon, there’d be hot water and hot milk for restorative drinks, and some form of snack, whether biscuits or fresh popcorn or zao. Dinner would start with a light soup – so delicious I’d find myself having fourths without a second thought (except, possibly, for the resulting number of times I would have to brave the chill temperatures outside my tent in the middle of the night) – and then move on to four or five vegetable dishes, rice and sometimes pasta. Dessert would be fruit or, on the last night, a delicious cross between a crème caramel and a sponge cake. Starving was one danger we weren’t going to encounter on the trek.

The next two days were much more serene in comparison. Day four we trekked happily up and down… and up and down again… and again, but all within the 4,150-4,410m range; we were all now much more comfortable with the altitude. In fact, it was the packhorses we felt sorry for, struggling with an uncertain downhill through the rhododendron snow-fields, swiftly followed by a steep and rocky uphill. All the while, Egg-Man strode manfully along at the rear, carefully carrying the triple trays of raw eggs apparently without incurring a single breakage all trip. Cresting our highest ridge, we stopped to mark the occasion with photographs and I solemnly tied my kata, a white prayer scarf with which I had been presented on my arrival in Bhutan, to one of the cairn-markers. It had done me well, tied onto the top of my daypack, for the last four days. Perhaps now it could be left to the gods.

The final morning we set off in fog. Slight adjustment to the itinerary, then: no point walking up to the ridge for an apparently 360-degree view of the snowy Himalaya before we left camp behind us. Fortunately, the fog didn’t last long and we soon broke through to dry and, for the first time in three days, warm air. Waterproofs were gleefully stripped off, soon followed by thermals and outer layers, as we basked like reptiles in this odd but delicious sunshine stuff. The day was like a fast-rewind of our first two days as we swiftly descended through each of the micro-habitats we had clambered through earlier in the week. We greeted the lilac primroses and the hanging skeins of Spanish moss like old friends. Here’s a tree-creeper again. Is that a cuckoo I hear? Here, the red rhododendrons; a little further down, the pink, then the yellow and the white. At the bottom of the valley, we faced an unexpected obstacle – a fast-flowing river. Karma, Kezang and Lorraine managed to leap delicately across; the rest of us sent up a silent apology to the
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Crossing the icy waters [copyright Lorraine]
gods for any possible disrespect they might take from our actions, and stripped off boots and socks to wade gingerly across the icy water. A wee paddle might have been desirable from the foot-cleansing and –refreshing point-of-view, but it was just a little chill for my tastes, and I squawked in a very unladylike fashion to the amusement of all.

An hour or so later, we were back on the woodsmen’s track, ambling through the forest as if we had just been out for an afternoon stroll. A little further on, and we caught sight of a roof or two… and a familiar-looking car… and a familiar collection of horses. There were Nancy and Dorji and Mr Puntso. Tshering had already put up the kitchen tent and a plate of new-baked papadums would soon emerge to accompany our nearly-cold welcoming beers. We’d done it. We’d tackled snowy heights and wet feet and uncomfortable altitude, and we’d come down in one piece.

That beer tasted very good.

Additional photos below
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24th June 2011

Magnificent blog
What a wonderful experience. We wish we were with your group. Love the photo of the morning packhorses and the GPS readings. Happy travels.

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