I am sitting in my chunky keens hiking boots watching dad and Daniel and our trekking guide Raj play hacky sack with a bundle of woven elastic bands. The backdrop is a valley of towering Rocky Mountains weaved into the land like a braid. It is early morning on the third day of trekking the Manaslu circuit and Tsum Valley in north west Nepal. Below I can hear the frantic rush of the river we follow; the pale blue glacial waters are a stark contrast to the emerald green trees climbing the riverbanks. Above me tattered and faded prayer flags flutter in the chilly breeze at the hotel appropriately named Shangri La. Bells on the necks of swaying donkeys loaded with goods fill the air. Mum keeps telling me how happy she feels inside. We feast on endless servings of Dahl baht; steaming piles of rice, salty spinach, lip pinching pickles, yellow vegetable curry, thick Dahl, crunchy pappadams and maybe some buff jerky. It is so exciting to be back. I flew from Trivandrum a week ago, leaving behind the billions of palm trees, seafood dinners, paradise brushed beaches and laid back travellers and locals alike which characterise South India. Someone stole my jacket on a sleeper bus, so I shivered my way into Kathmandu. I wondered the street in a plane travel induced haze recognizing places and names; the guard at the gate of the Kathmandu guest house, the Hot Bread Bakery, Internet cafés and gear hiring outlets. Looming over the tourist hub of Thamel and the densely packed city streets of Nepal’s capital, you can see a whisper of the snow-capped mountains which entice and inspire so many. The tourists are a combination of hard-core hikers ready to launch out and bag some of the world’s highest peaks, keen walkers trying out some famous hikes, and hippies drifting down to Pokhara for massage courses and yoga. I found some fun Australian company in Tezcan and Jules, friends from Melbourne.
The next day I woke early for the day I had been anticipating the whole trip. I caught a ride with the hotel staff to the airport to meet the family. After what felt like forever waiting on the fence with all the taxi drivers, mum, dad and Daniel finally walked into view. There were smiles and hugs all the way back to the hostel, then a whole bottle of Jim Beam disappeared over catch up stories and laughter. Daniel and I continued partying at purple haze, head banging with a nomadic British woman and hundreds of Nepalese. We explored Kathmandu for two days before our trek began, starting with a whole day at the open cemetery, Pushtinath. Cross legged sadhus with dreadlocks in their beards and orange robes on their backs pass a joint and watch over the burning ghats. Mourning women clutch at their chest for all the pain in their hearts and scream and howl for their loved one swathed in linen and surrounded by tea candles on the concrete. On the next funeral pyre, an unrecognisable body has been charred to ashes, and a hunched over worker brushes the remnants into the river below. Silhouettes of children splash around down river on their only day off from school. A starved puppy limps by unnoticed by locals who have more to worry about. Beyond the ghats, a home for the elderly stands as a legacy to mother Theresa. Toothless mouths grin up at us as we enter, and around the square ancients are perched in the steps sunning themselves, eating mandarins with swollen tongues and even singing.
That night Daniel and I shared Dahl baht with Tezcan and Jules and two German girls for dinner.
The next day, from hotel Potala, the monkey Temple sat on a mountain looking grand, so we set out walking to find it. The streets come alive mid morning with hunks of meat strung up on hooks on butcher street, flower garlands are nimbly thread as offerings around the temples, clothing and vegetables are piled and stacked high to sell and locals crowd around frying pans for deep dried doughy snacks.
The monkey temple lived up to its name, and while eating lunch up there towering over the city, we spent at least an hour observing a family of brazen tree climbers. They climbed through bars to pull the lids off simmering pots and were scolded like children from the cook. Prayer wheels snake their way around the large temple, and you have to walk around clockwise, rolling the decorated metal with your palm as you go. Back in Thamel, we met with our hiking guide Raj and went on a shopping mission for last minute hiking equipment. I said goodbye to my summer dresses and singlets, swapping them for down jacket and ski pants. The final supper consisted of sizzling steak, salad and beef since we are expecting riveting Dahl baht for the next few weeks.
Sunday 2nd February 2014
I cannot even begin to accurately explain last nights activities. That sounds way more suggestive than I intended considering I am sitting eating dry chapati around a fire in a Buddhist monastery. Just before bed, Raj mentioned that because of an annual ceremony, the monks would be staying up all night playing music and chanting, and that at some stage a masked man would come in to bless up. All good we thought. At some ungodly (haha) hour of the night, the entire band moved into our room, someone hit the lights and I woke not entirely sure I was out of a dream. A figure with streams of long hair and a dragon masked face was jumping between our beds sticking out his tongue and making hideous noises. I looked towards the door and the red robed girls were laughing hysterically, a man with a half black, half white painted face jumping around between them. The masked man began to poke us, and I caught a glimpse of mums shocked face in the next bed. For at least ten minutes this wild blessing was carried out to purge our demons. When the crowd finally left to bless the next room, Daniel mum and I burst out laughing. The walls continued to shudder all night with the base drums and it’s accompanying bells and chants, the children ran wild turning on our light and doing whatever you do in a Buddhist ceremony. We woke to tiny bodies sleeping soundly with the toy puppy nestled in between on the hay under the house and the sun rising red over the mountains. Dad and the boys thoughtfully chose to sleep in tents away from the house, and we made the decision to stay in this crazy little gem another night. We arrived in in this incredible location after walking lots of gruelling, whinging hours through the Tsum valley yesterday. We parted from a group of friendly Australian engineers to take an alternative route mid morning, and set up some of the steepest hills our Achilles have ever experienced. Zig zagging with the track, the view on both sides somehow increased the heart rate even more. The vertical drop from the carved in path leads to the raging blue river below. Layers of pine covered rock slabs reminded me of Canada’s Rockies, but the brain bogglingly high snowy mountains are more dramatic. At the highest point, we collapsed in a heap to eat biscuits and noodles, in awe of the all round mountain view; tiny villages perched way above us amongst impossible sheer rock peaks, farming plots in unbelievable locations and the strength it must take to bring all of the materials up here to make living possible. The day before we passed a man sweating it up a mountain with an 80 kg load of plywood. He will get $100 for his three day journey to deliver the goods. Our alternate route is barely taken by Trekkers, and ancient looking stone villages produced dirt caked children peaking from behind walls and windows to get a look at our group. When my body was almost exhausted, we came past a picture perfect house from the Stone Age; a weather beaten old woman smiled up at us from her front yard of mismatched cows, a basket of soil on her back ready to transport somewhere. Her two young boys were wary but curious of us, we gave them a snake to chew on, and the purple lolly stood out with its vibrant colour against their well worn tattered clothing, short cropped black hair and wind burnt cheeks. I walked with a spring in my step until we reached this monastery. It doubles as the local hospital, So we were given the four hospital beds in the creaking wooden structure. We were also in luck because we arrived in the middle of this three day annual ceremony. Our first night in Khola besi, we turned up for some wild dancing to celebrate the 50th year of the local school house. The second night we arrived in lapu besi and joined women under a tent to make donuts while watching some hardcore volleyball. It seems like these people use any excuse to party. Anyway, back to the monastery; we all just got blessed in a sacred room with orange juice in our hair by a lama, there’s so much to tell! After eating a pot of steaming potatoes to nourish our famines stomachs when we first arrived here, we sat around the fire with the monk children for the whole night, hugging their tiny red robes bodies and tried to communicate. I don’t even mind if I caught flees from the toy sized fluff ball puppy because he is the most adorable thing I have ever laid eyes on. The nuns are all under 18 and their teacher Annie has this holy glow in her high, circular cheeks. We have just arrived back from a day trip up to a Buddhist gompa. Plodding up a mountain so strep you often take an unplanned step backward, we reached the snow line sweating in shirts and rolled up pants. Each step further exposes the snowy monsters surrounding us, and significantly increases the distance you would fall into the hazy gorge below. Mum gets vertigo, so her method is to look straight ahead and plough up the mountain until a little more earth can be found between her feet and the hellish drop.
Tuesday 4th February 2014
I was interrupted writing my last diary entry to be blessed at least three times. Squeezing through long plaited ladies visiting the festival from nearby villages, I ducked under a low doorway into the brightly decorated prayer room. A line of high monks sat in a line against the Wall chanting to heavy bound books. At the end of the narrow room, I kneeled before a Lama who lifted an intricate silver teapot above me, and I was mentally preparing for him to tip it’s contents over my head, but, after a few melodic words he brought it back down and poured orange liquid into my cupped hands. The next monk along motioned for me to wipe it on my head and drink the rest, so I took his cue, tasting fermented orange juice on tense taste buds. Fun times. It’s day eight now, and I am watching the boys wolf down their porridge at our guesthouse in Chakang Poro. Leaving Dumje yesterday morning was hard, and we would be content to stay with those gorgeous, gruel eating, life loving little monk children for the rest of the trip. We walked up about 700m, and the air here at 3000m is crisp. I am looking outside at the horses in the front yard fighting over dry bread with the throaty rooster. Beyond that, the snowy mountains look close enough to reach out and touch; long waterfalls frozen in time and haggard walking tracks pattern the land.
Wednesday 5 th February 2014
I am back looking over the frozen waterfalls in Chakang Poro. Yesterday we walked up to Mu Gompa and stayed in a Buddhist monastery only a few kilometres from the Tibetan border. We can feel the Chinese influence in the writing on noodle packets and building materials, as well as the predominately Tibetan dialect. With a Monk host whose ears are an eerily accurate resemblance to Buddha, our room with a view looked over snow sprayed mountains where a fat yak teetering on some rocky edge a ninth of the way up helps give your brain perspective of the dizzying heights. I felt out of breath exploring around the 3800m monastery, fluffy snow covering the heavy slate roof and tattered prayer flags drooping from the weight of icicles. Two dogs, three horses and two monks were our companions in this holy sanctuary for the night- until we met unexpected visitors the next morning. As the helicopter flew in, we all placed our bets on the Trekkers nationality. Japanese or American had the highest consensus. Five geared up Americans emerged from the red mosquito on the helipad, and explained they will walk out, distributing medical supplies along the way on behalf of their NGO Mountain Child something. We kept our mouths shut that they might have cut costs with the chopper, but they are all fun guys. Taking a steep morning walk to a nunnery at 4200 m, the lone nun who resides there wouldn’t let us in and I couldn’t really see how being selfish and keeping a nice monastery a secret to others fits in with the whole Buddhism concept. Our walk back down today was beautiful but freezing. Sleet flecked my jacket and wind poked its fingernails into my temples. It is the first day we haven’t been blessed with sun, and I am guessing it’s got something to do with that angry nun. We stopped to watch a yak being skinned on the snow and Raj translated that it had fallen to its death from the overhanging cliff above (Buddhist trend in the Tsum valley; don’t kill anything, but obviously don’t waste it if it happens to die). Raj casually told us that the teenage boys carving had probably been craving some forbidden meat and pushed the animal off the cliff, staging its premature death. I can understand that though, who wants to wait around for natural death and eat old, hard meat. We walked on past ratchet gompa (an out of place monastery with heaters in every room, hot showers and WIFI- we don’t get any of that at our accommodation!). We are on our way back out of the Tsum valley now. It will be a quick descent because it was such a goddamn exhausting ascent to get here, but oh so worth it. This is a road less travelled, but unfortunately within 5 years there will literally be a road through here connecting Nepal and China. I feel lucky to be here, lucky the weather has been so bearable, and lucky that none of my family members have killed one another- yet.
Monday 10th February 2014
I am lying in my -20 degree sleeping bag watching my breath escape smokily into the cold air around me. Through the window, the sunshine is sliding down the jagged black mountain covered in snow. Today marks two weeks walking, and also one year since I left the military. Energetic white birds are weaving through clusters of pines. From this distance, they look like fairy dust swirling around in the wind. The sky is more blue than any other country. Today is clean and cloudless, which gives us hope for crossing Larke La Pass. Since my last entry, we are well and truly back on the Manaslu Circuit. I didn’t write for a few days because although the views have been spectacular, they have been following that same glacial river on paths busy with donkey trains and towering peaks as I have already described. The day we left the Tsum valley, we met two Dutch Trekkers with their skinny Nepalese guide wearing jeans and dress shoes. The Dutch doctor and engineer power duo have legs long enough to trek through whatever amount of snow has been dumped on this pass. The same day, we ran into three friendly Swiss girls and stayed with them again last night. Perched on the edge of the cliff with the blue river beckoning below, we ate delicious spinach and cheese pizzas at Bhi Phedi. The afternoon was spent with heads in books and chilly hands poking out of gloves to turn pages. I just finished Freakonomics. With fresh snow covering the mountains in the morning, it is unusually easy to warm up once you begin traversing the steep path. Young girls carrying impeccably thatched cane baskets lift their heads under heavy loads go greet us with namaste. The river has bored into the rock, making it smooth over thousands of years. In some places, you can see where it must rise to during monsoon. I have to remember to google it because no one can walk up here when the river is raging in summer. A final 600m climb took us to Namrung, and Daniel mum and I sat reading in the sun while the boys searched for a place to stay. An ancient deaf women perched herself next to me, her rasping slow breath burning into the side of my head as she just sat and stared at me, occasionally pegging a stone at her chicken. With only one homestay open, we didn’t have much choice and we soon learnt that the predominately tibetan town has many weird and wonderful characters. Our hostess a greying, smiling buddhist wearing square black aprons and heavy set of prayer beads. As soon as we saw him, Daniel commented on the amount of weed he must have smoked in his lifetime. I don’t think he’s wrong. While we were eating chapati at the fire. Mum sat in another room reading. The host mans twin alcoholic brother entered the room twitching and spitting. He sat and stared directly at mum while eating a plate of rice and leaving more of it on his unwashed face and on the table than in his mouth. The host mans father sat at the other end of the building, completely cross eyed which allowed him to have his eyes on two of us at any given time. He had six pieces of corn and 5 red beans on a wooden table and kept touching them while he chanted. A whole lot of men from town came to our place to join the party, slurping the local grog rocksi and smoking hash around the fire. Twice during the middle of the night an old drink came to our bedroom window muttering and shining his torch on us. Despite the fact we have only washed once in a fortnight, we left Namrung feeling a whole lot dirtier. Yesterday snow started to speckle the path like icing sugar. Atop the mountains it’s as though an invisible sifter is drenching a chocolate cake with the stuff. Not many parts have turned to ice yet, so it’s easy to get a grip on the soft snow. Walking into Lho was like a winter land with a stream of frozen icicles sellout trickling alongside us, powder thick on the topside of logs and branches.
11 February 2014
We have been in Samayoung three days now. Yesterday was a pristine acclimatization day up to a gompa. We were up to our knees in snow and down to singlets in the sunshine. The Dutch power duo staggered in after 14 hours walking – they couldn’t make it over the pass for the snow. We still felt good though, we have the advantage of tents and cooking materials, and we thanked them for forging the path in the snow for us. Nothing could go wrong except for the weather and, Murphy’s law, we woke up this morning to a blizzard. The three Swiss girls have gone back as well, so it’s just us now. The snow has been coming in hard all day, covering wondering yaks, rocks and buildings in a blanket of snow. We can’t see much, but are waiting out to see if it clears today. My frozen fingers are crossed- it’s only one or two days down once we cross the pass, then comes a hot shower!
(I was so wrong)