Thursday 4 December 2014

Days 174-175: Dolpo days 5-6 - The Road to Shey

Working yaks accompanied us on the pass
The sun rose on the white crenelated face of a mountain, 6,000 - 7,000m high, bathing its toes in green forest.  We climbed a valley whose steep sides framed the sight.  As we ascended, the temperature dropped and we wore down jackets while munching our packed lunch of boiled potatoes and eggs.

On a trek, little can compete for attention with food.  Put a biscuit on the table and conversation dies.  But we dropped our egg shells when a herd of yaks appeared on the path behind us, each with four or five logs strapped to their backs, wide enough to build a house.  "Here are the Ford transits of the Himalaya," Tony announced as we photographed them.  The Inner Dolpo construction industry calls.

We followed in the yaks' wake to a cold camp at 4,600m.  The four-thirty round of 'hot miluk', tea and hot chocolate was even more welcome than usual, so was the early morning cup of 'bed tea', but the hot washing water that followed saw little use.  Some of us had bathed in the river the previous afternoon, before the sun took an early plunge behind the mountains, but even those who passed on a river bath drew the line at stripping in the freezing temperatures at six am.

Our cook (Dilli) on the walk up to high camp
Instead, we donned our thick socks and boots - those of us who had them.   But some of the Nepali crew walked in plastic sandals, to my horror.  Narinda, the donkey boy, held his bare feet in the flames of a small fire while an acrid smell wafted by; he was burning plastic bags.  Later, we would ask for used plastic to be carried back to Juphal with us, to be substituted by wood-fuelled warmth.  The best solution, new shoes, was unlikely to be an option in Upper Dolpo.

That day's destination, the Kang La pass (5,100m), lay straight above us.  We clambered up a steep and loose slope to the obligatory prayer flags at the top.  Uttam, one of the sherpas, climbed beside me and chatted about life in Nepal.  He told me that he has to support his grandparents, parents and sisters but there are no jobs in Kathmandu and at times he only gets work on two expeditions a year.  "Sometimes there isn't enough money left for me," he said.  "All of the jobs go to relatives of government officials; it's very corrupt."  I looked at his downcast face against the white mountains and hints of green below.  "Nepal is still in the Stone Age," he added gloomily.

Pamela and Beer Badhu approach the pass
From the economy, the conversation turned to religion and Uttam told me about the Hindu cycle of re-birth, in which he believes, alongside a Buddhist faith.  "But I don't want to be born again," he said, "I don't want to come back here".  He asked about Christianity with its heaven and its flame-licked hell.  "I don't think heaven and hell are in the afterlife," he told me, "I think they are here in this world".  

Times are bad in Nepal; since the Maoist rebellion, no new constitution has been drawn up to replace the former constitutional monarchy.  And while the political stalemate drags on, people like Uttam struggle for work to support their families.  "Perhaps I will have to go to the Middle East," he said, "and become a migrant worker".  I looked up at the steep mountain pass above me and felt hope draining away.  With the screeching brakes of the Nepalese economy sounding in my ears, along with sympathy for Uttam, and a sense of helplessness, perhaps I wouldn't make it up there after all.

But when I reached the top, Santa's face grinned above his red jacket and he started singing.  "Tikcha?" everyone asked.  "Okay?"  "Yes, tikcha, tikcha."  For three weeks, this would be one of the only words I shared with some members of the crew.  But it was hard not to be okay - more than okay - up here.  The snowy mass of the Annapurna range preened itself above gentler summits and, when I climbed towards a knoll above the pass, Dhaulugiri joined the show.  It was time for a photographic frenzy, one of many.  The next took place a few hours later as we entered the main destination of the expedition: Shey.

Avalanche tracks were visible from camp in the morning.
The kitchen crew leave camp on Day 5
Ascending the Khola behind the kitchen crew
Ascending from high camp on the morning of Day 6 
Ford Transits
Tony dwarfed by the fluted face of the range that we had camped under on Day 4. 
The kitchen crew and Dilli make the steep scree-ascent to the pass.
A short while later, Susan tackles it, whilst the donkeys have taken a different route!
A team shot on the pass: Dilli, Narinder, Uttam, Susan, Dol Badu and Nigel (from left to right, front to back)
Annapurna I, the first 8000er to be climbed
Dwarfed by the pass
The pass seen from a point a few metres above
Obligatory prayer flag shot
Mani walls signify the approach to Shey 
Shey Gompa stands in an impressive location in a barren valley

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