Tuesday 16 December 2014

Days 185-186: Dolpo days 16-17 - Storms on the Road to Nowhere

No photos of the rain but here is the result!
At midnight it continued to rain.  The same at three am and again at six am.  There was no chance of drying our tents the next morning, we just squelched down the valley to the next camp where it continued to rain almost until nightfall.  A twenty-four hour downpour outside the monsoon season is a freak event in these parts.  We discovered, when we next had access to mobile reception, in Dunai, that the same storm had killed dozens of trekkers and porters in the Annapurna region and left many more missing.  This is the greatest loss of life in the mountains in Nepal in many years.

Not knowing about the disaster, we took the opportunity to play our three thousand five hundred and sixty-sixth game of cards (no, I didn't really count) and joke about the road we had walked down that day.  It began where we emerged from the gorge (a location lacking so much as a house) and proceeded towards our night's campsite, often hiding under falls of rock, or accepting an immovable boulder in its midst, even if this would prevent a four by four from ever passing that way.  In many places, the road went missing, its rocks presumably lost long before in the river.  Who would ever use this road, we wondered?  It surely could not pass the gorge we had spent two days descending, and reach Dho-Tarap?  Who had built it?  And for whom?  It looked like a road to nowhere.

Pamela wows the local kids with her
1974 Olympus OM-1
The next day the road continued for a while, then sputtered, fizzled, died, and held out for resurrection.  We followed until we reached Dunai, the capital of Dolpo.  A line of shops offered beer, pairs of shoes to replenish those discarded in the valley of lost shoes, biscuits.  The word chocolate no longer denoted Chinese chewing gum but Mars Bars and Dairy Milk.

We dried our gear and discarded our down jackets at last; from high camps at minus ten degrees, the night time temperature here would remain well above zero.  It was warm enough to sit out in the garden in the evening and laugh and joke.  The Nepali army thought so too.  Five of them came and sat in our camp site with their rifles on their laps.  I thought this rather aggressive (a Quaker upbringing has that affect).  "Don't worry," Tony said, "this is Nepal.  Their guns probably don't even work."  We laughed, but it wasn't our first joke about the disfunctionality of life in Nepal.  And when cynicism sets in, it's probably time for the trek to end.

Morning smoke and light at Tarakot

Days 183-184: Dolpo days 14-15 - Tracking Babu Hari through the Land of Lost Shoes

The ever-photogenic yak caravan
Dilli the cook walked back up the valley to pay the kitchen boy's alcohol debts (later to be deducted from his pay) and bring him down to Dho Tarap.  Our party was complete again.

We continued down the valley, narrowing to a deep cleft, for one day, then a second.  The occasional Tibetan camp punctuated the gorge, always littered with rubbish (let's say there were five items of garbage per square foot).  Plastics have arrived; waste disposal has not.  But still, why leave litter strewn everywhere instead of confining it to a chosen spot?  The most commonly discarded items were shoes: an orange sandal with a lime green strap, a blue plimsol, a red trainer with white ribs, a white one with blue ribs, a blue one with white ribs.  Spin the roulette wheel and see which lost shoe next appears.  The only feature they all shared was their unsuitability for the Upper and Lower Dolpo circuit; they simply were not rugged enough.  (If only we could have found a discarded hiking boot!)

Each shoe was solitary, never accompanied by its pair, and all had their laces removed.  In one place, I counted eight shoes, in various states of disrepair, in a few yards.  But this was not a distinctive feature of the gorge alone; it featured all around the circuit.  We were truly in a land of lost shoes.

And if you run out of yaks...
As we continued down the gorge, an ever-less probable path clung to its sides, sometimes boring through the rock, sometimes shored up by supporting blocks, sometimes weaving through vegetation or gushing in landslips into the river below.  Where rock fall wiped it out completely, a choice of two paths presented itself; the old and the new one.  At each junction, we examined the ground until we spotted Babu Hari's dotty shoe prints, to check which way we should go, then followed in his footsteps.  Whatever my expectations of Dolpo, I had not anticipated tracking the chef's assistant.

As dusk fell on the long descent, we had to decide between a high path to a village on the hillside or a low path to the river.  Which had our crew taken?  All bar one of the sherpas had gone ahead to choose the campsite, the kitchen crew had out-paced us, and even Babu Hari's footprints, at last, let us down.  Then we saw a flash of torchlight and Nigel climbed out of a thickly-vegetated slope to show us the way to camp.  As we approached, other members of the crew popped out of the undergrowth like a bunch of good elves.  "It was a long day," came Uttam's voice first, then 'double trouble' (the donkey drivers) emerged, gesturing in the direction they wanted us to take.  By the time we reached camp we were almost laughing at the pantomime.  But the weather did not share our feelings.  For the first time since we left Phoksundo Lake, it started to rain.

The Tarap Chu gorge at this point was still dry and arid
The view from the top of a bend
1000m further down and we saw the tantalising prospect of lush vegetation

Even Dolpo is not free of the road-building craze sweeping Nepal.
Cut into the side of the hill is the beginnings of a road up the Tarap Chu gorge
from Kanigaon. Heaven knows how it will get much further though!

Day 182: Dolpo day 13 - Begging for balloons

Transit vans dwarf their driver on the approach to Dho Tarap
With our feet turned downhill, we paid off The Chang Express, a day too late.  He had spent the night drinking with one of our kitchen boys and daylight found the latter too inebriated to proceed.  The Chang Express himself, meanwhile, was hardened against the effects of chang.  Presumably he re-stocked his supply before leaving the town and heading north, leaving our kitchen boy in a heap behind him.

The walk down to Dho-Tarap, the capital city of these parts, was short but eventful, remembering that after twelve days in the wilds little action is needed to constitute an 'event'.  Some children played badminton (which seemed very suitable given the proximity to the Tibetan / Chinese border - will it be table tennis next?).  Youths in leathers rode Chinese motorbikes up and down the four mile path, with their heads held high, as though showing off a new Mercedes.  A group of people waited for an ambulance helicopter to take them to Kathmandu.  Dilli, our cook, passed us, carrying the drunk kitchen boy's baggage.

A Himalayan Vulture?
(Could William Vittery please comment!)
By lunchtime, we had pitched camp and spent the afternoon wandering along a side valley to visit two half-derelict gompas.  "Hello, give me a balloon," the children called as we passed.   We wondered who on earth first raised this expectation in a remote Himayalan valley; balloons are a strange choice of gift.  Back in Dho-Tarap, others called "give me chocolate" or, most often, "give me money".  A mother turned her baby's hand into a begging posture and held it out to us, expecting us to see need not manipulation.  We had encountered nothing of the kind in Upper Dolpo.

Guy continued to befriend the children when he could, asking their names and ages.  As everyone had learned the same phrases, the mantra grew familiar.  "What is your name?"  "My name is Guy."  "What is your sister's name?"  "What is your brother's name?"  "I am thirteen years old."  Always I was shocked by their ages.  When I guessed a girl was ten years old, she would say "fourteen".  A slender female waif, surely no more than eight years old, would lay claim to twelve years.  These girls looked too young for teenagers, too young to be married in a few years time.  But above them in age lay a demographic gulf.  Middle-aged adults abounded in this valley and so did children.  But where were the young adults?  Where were the men and women in their late teens and twenties?  Had they gone to Kathmandu to work?

The bike still had Chinese plates... but where's the road?!?
Yet some people in the valley must have money jangling in their pockets without leaving home in search of jobs.  A helicopter to Kathmandu costs a four figure sum, and that's dollars not Nepali rupees, yet we had heard a chopper pass overhead earlier in the day.  For those who cannot afford such necessities, a long donkey ride will take you to the air strip in Juphal, several days journey away.  Anyone acutely ill could die on the ride.  Upper Dolpo is a place where an attack of appendicitis (amongst other things) could easily kill.

"Give me chocolate," called a child.  "Give me a balloon."  Many things are hard to come by here.

A Yak silhouetted in the morning light on the road to Dho Tarap
Village en-route to Dho Tarap
No bikes to be seen here fortunately
Chortens and mountains
Traditional load carrying
Yaks intimidate as they pass us
These ones are less of a threat though
Despite some people with money, many people in Dho Tarap are still peasant farmers
Separating grain from chaff using the wind
Monastery near Dho Tarap (the interior was being renovated)
The monastery on the east side of the river (just north of Dho Tarap)
The arid landscape of Dolpo

Day 181: Dolpo day 12 - Dhaulagiri

The unmistakable dome of Dhaulagiri:
head and shoulders above the surrounding hills!
An hour's plod from wolf camp brought us to the top of our final thousand metre pass.  Today's uphill distraction was the search for an alliterative title for Tony's Dolpo film.  How about Dusty Dolpo?  Dolpo by Donkey?  Devouring Dilli's Dal Bhat in Dusty Dolpo?  Devouring Dilli's Dhal Bhat in Dusty Dolpo with Dolbadu's Donkeys?  The possibilities were endless.

When we reached the pass, Dhaulagiri awaited us.  The seventh highest mountain in the world is unmistakeable because it rises sheer above its surroundings.  To the right, its imaginatively-named sub-summits lined up: Dhaulagiri Two, Three, Four and Five!  And the usual foliage of brightly-coloured fabric, bearing the Tibetan blessing 'Om mani padme hum', framed the shot.

The view could not have contrasted more sharply with the brown tapestry of the Tibetan plateau that we had seen from the previous pass.  That one relied for its beauty on its scope - hundreds of pinnacles jutting from the desert - while this one focused on the single majestic crown of Dhaulagiri, a white cone denting the sky.  Click, click, click.

Pamela and the Chang Express arrived
shortly after Susan, Nigel and myself
We waited an hour for Tony then took group photos on the summit.  We showed Uttam how to take photographs with a camera worth more than his annual income, without cutting off the feet of the subjects.  Then cake was eaten, layers donned, sweets consumed.  I danced a brief but gleeful jig.

From here the route lay downwards to our campsite, which was already sprouting in a windy spot high on the slopes of the pass.  But the beauty of reaching a high point is that you get the chance to descend to warmer climes afterwards.  We shook our heads at the camping spot and plodded on, while the donkey drivers re-packed their bags behind us.

As it turned out, the campsite lower down the valley, in Tokyu, wasn't much warmer, but at least it lay in the zone of agriculture and picturesque villages and the scent of hardy shrubs blowing in the breeze.  This time we nodded to the donkey drivers.  We could camp here.

Group shot... we're only missing Tony!
Our first sight of Dhaulagiri from the pass
Susan, Guy, Krishna, Nigel and Tony
Strong winds as usual... 
The wide valley marking our descent with Dhaulagiri framed to the south 
Scree fans formed an interesting pattern on the surrounding mountains
The large-scale geological structures on display. Is the low angled fault in the hillside
at the back an indication that we are nearing the South Tibetan detachment fault system? 
Thoughts of geology turned to food as we neared town.
The massive chorten on the left dwarfs the yaks grazing nearby.
On closer inspection, the rear half had collapsed!

Day 180: Dolpo day 11 - Tracking the Snow Leopard

Where's the snow leopard then?
There were no miles for free today; from the time we laid our first boot print we had to climb persistently upwards to a high camp preceding our final 5,000m pass.  But there were distractions from the strain without resorting to hobbit names.  On the path, we found cat-like footprints; could these belong to the endangered albino leopard that we so wanted to see?

"Have you seen snow leopards here?" we asked a passing yak herd.  "Yes, twice recently," he told us.  He pointed to the hills ahead of us.  "It's up there."  We looked down at the tracks again.  One adult and two young creatures - could they be snow leopards? - had definitely preceded us up this very footpath in the last few days.

A pair of footprints with my 3 inch lens cap for scale
The next excitement was the discovery of cat scat, the most distinctive snow leopard sign we had seen yet.  The footprints could perhaps belong to another creature, but which animal in these parts leaves scat like a leopard?  Definitely not a donkey or a horse.  Not a yak.  Not a sheep.  Not a goat.  This must be the trail of the snow leopard.

We only looked up from the markings in the dust when they were overrun by a sea of four-legged woollen bodies.  We were passing a herders' camp and stopped to watch women milk the naks (female yaks) and Catherine-wheel a tape to herd their goats.  But little else distracted us from our new-found obsession with footprints.  It was so absorbing that we did not reach camp until mid-afternoon, but we had still not caught a glimpse of amber eyes or whitish fur prowling the hillside.

Cat scat?
Nonetheless, we were feeling elated at dinner that night.  The food was plentiful, the after-dinner mug of tea warming, the moon full shone above us.  We were chatting and joking.  Tomorrow we would cross the final pass and descend at last to Juphal.  Perhaps we would have one last chance to spot a snow leopard on the hillside.

Then the thread of conversation snapped.  We heard a loud distinctive howl.  It was the sound of folk stories and childhood nightmares, of Little Red Riding Hood and 'What's the time, Mr Wolf?'.  And now the answer was for real: 'dinner time'.  A pack of wolves roamed above us in the mountains.

We could do nothing but zip up our tents and hope a night time visit to the toilet tent would not be needed.  At half midnight Guy heard howling around the camp and called out to the expedition leader, Tony.  But we could only hunker down in our sleeping bags, keeping warm and hoping that wolves considered donkey tastier than human.  A few hours later we heard yapping in the camp.  A dog or a wolf?  But we had not seen any dogs anywhere in Upper Dolpo; Krishna thought there was not enough meat in the villages to feed them.  Perhaps the wolves were in the camp itself?  We tried to block out the thought.

When morning dawned, nine donkeys remained in camp (the number we had set out with), sixteen humans (also the correct number), and Sheeti.  The wolves must have found a tasty baby yak steak, or perhaps a succulent leg of goat, elsewhere.  Overgrown monkey wrapped in polyester wasn't on their evening's menu (perhaps raw primate doesn't cut it for a full moon feast?).

The sun was now shining and pots and pans clanked as Dilli prepared breakfast.  Suddenly, it was hard to feel scared of wolves howling in the moonlight.

How to keep your feet dry
Wolf food 
Dolbadu assists with milking
This guy seems happy?

Day 179: Dolpo day 10 - The Chang Express

Pamela and Sheeti
Pamela has not been feeling well for the last few days; her pulse races even when she is at rest and she struggles for breath on ascents.  But it is still eight days walk to the road head and a helicopter probably would not make it over the five thousand metre passes that garrison Upper Dolpo.  It was time to hire a horse.

Sheeti ('White Horse') arrived first thing in the morning with its tail plaited and bright rugs cushioning its saddle.  Its coiffeur had taken time - something that could not be said of its owner.  He was short, middle-aged and carried a bottle of white-coloured liquid in his hand which he frequently refilled from a larger bottle at his waist.  This is the local tipple, Chang.  Before we reached the end of the village he had fallen over in what appeared to be a drunken stumble.  It set the tone for the rest of the journey.  Before long, we regarded him as the most colourful member of our expedition and nicknamed him 'The Chang Express'.  Pamela, meanwhile, held tight to the reins as he led Sheeti along the trail.

All that day The Chang Express and the rest of us walked down the valley past picturesque farmsteads, gompas and villagers harvesting grain against the clock.  Each village was flanked by chortens and mani walls, two of which were spray-painted with a pink Maoist hammer and sickle.

Eric Valli's film "Caravan" had a big positive
impact for the people around Saldang who were
extremely accommodating with Guy's
frequent requests for photos.
"This isn't very respectful," Guy said to one of the sherpas, "it's a religious site. Why have they painted the communist symbol on it?"

"But they don't believe in religion; they don't believe in culture," the sherpa replied; "they're just Maoists".

Defacing villagers' beloved religious monuments seems like a strange way of winning popular support but apparently this was a Maoist heartland.  "They also burned down schools," Tony told us.  Now they sit in Nepal's parliament while the country enters its eighth year since the suspension of its constitution, without any sign yet of the replacement.

For the afternoon's entertainment, Guy decided to have a go at carrying Babu Hari's load - a torso-sized basket full of kitchen pots and jars of sauce, carried using a head strap.  "No, no," a distressed Hari protested.  He looked tired and perhaps he feared we did not think he was up to the job.  But Krishna explained that we were just having fun and Guy set off up the path with the bundle so fast I could hardly keep up, while Santa shouted "yes, good, very good".  When Guy finally returned the bundle to Hari, Santa gave him a hearty handshake.

Next it was time to have a go at donkey driving and Guy copied Dholbadu and Narinda's pattern of shouts (donkeys have a language?) while they almost wet themselves with laughter.  Within minutes of Guy taking charge, the beasts decided it was time to give up load-carrying and start grazing the shrubs at the sides of the path.  While Guy might make a decent kitchen boy, I doubt he will be hired as a donkey driver.

Sheeti, meanwhile, barely needed to graze as The Chang Express gave him dal bhat for his lunch.  Only when we reached camp, in the rising ground of a side valley, did he need to start foraging.

Morning light in Saldang
Children on their way to school
Chortens and wheat fields 
The entry to Saldang
What do you call a chorten with a passageway?
A local boy...
... and his brother
Mani wall
One of a number of small gompas in the valley upstream from Saldang
Colourful Saldang landscape
This lady spoke impeccable English and ran a well-stocked shop!
I took a number of photos of this little fella, didn't smile once!
Blue sheep on the approach to camp
Blue sheep seem to be able to climb the most vertiginous of cliffs