After a chilly night I think everyone was very glad when light appeared in the sky over Pilling and the sun peeked its warming face over the mountains to our east. Even then, tucked as we were into the animal compound with its 5 to 6 feet high walls, it was nearly 8 am before we felt any warmth and could air our sleeping bags on the roofs of our tents. Not that it had rained during the night – far from it – we had a dry night with a completely clear sky and a breathtaking number of stars twinkling above. The Milky Way was so abundant in these conditions of zero light pollution it appeared to be a hazy cloud above our heads rather than the distant outer reaches of our own galaxy. Nonetheless damp sleeping bags resulted from condensation in our tents due to the coldness of the air.
At around 7:30 Gyalbu and Sangye brought us ‘bed tea’ to encourage mobility among those who hadn’t already been forced by other pressures to rise. Their strong black tea and jovial exhortations to action did the trick and by 8 am we were enjoying tsampa porridge. This gloopy breakfast, Nepalese internal central heating, comprised several tablespoons of tsampa mixed into a bowl of hot tea.
Tsampa is roasted maize or barley meal ground to powder. In a relatively thin mixture it is just about drinkable and can be downed quickly. Any thicker and it needs to be spooned. Thicker still and it refuses to mix and is taken in lumps. Tsampa porridge at its thickest is an acquired taste that has eluded me and many of the team, although Tim swears by it as the perfect start to the day and takes it thicker than most. Either way that is what we have for breakfast and we each made of it what we could in the absence of a ‘full English’. Our food fantasies started at about this time, just 24 hours out of Kagbeni, and with these we filled many an hour on the trek.
Rucksacks were packed and any still-damp sleeping bags were stowed by 9 am and by shortly after the ponies were loaded and they, and we, were heading west in the sunshine. Our target for the day was the village of Ghok. Not formally on the Great Himalayan Trail, Ghok was to be a stepping stone as it was still a little soon in our acclimatisation program to head directly over the 5550m (18,209ft) Jungben La around 1800m (5,905ft) higher than Pilling. The Jungben La can be clearly seen in the photograph below, indicated by the narrow sandy track heading into the pass to the right of the apparent ‘rhino horn’ in the top centre of the photo. You will appreciate its height and size when I tell you that the Jungben La is around 7 miles as the crow flies from Pilling where the photo below was taken. It shows Tim and Lizzie striding out first thing, with Gyalbu ahead passing the chorten to its left.
Chortens are Buddhist commemorative monuments seen all over Asia, from huge and rich chortens in important city temples to small, typically battered, structures alongside remote mountain trails. Also known as stupas these are typically mound-like or hemispherial structures containing relics used for meditation. Sometimes they are decorated by mani stones which are flat stones or boulders upon which the Buddhist chant OM MANI PADME HUM has been incribed in Tibetan as below. The script is frequently less embellished and may also be found on prayer flags and prayer wheels.
OM MANI PADME HUM, pronounced and intoned Aum – ma-ni – pay-may – hung with the leading Aum being deeply resonated means Om! The jewel in the heart of the lotus! Hum! and has a deeply religious implication to Buddhists.
Devout Buddhists are likely to chant OM MANI PADME HUM every day and, on our trek so far, I have spent considerable time following in Gyalbu’s footsteps. I have heard but never discussed with him his intoning of the chant, in particular the deeply resonant OM! rhythmically in time with his pace. Gyalbu was almost certainly chanting ahead of Tim, Lizzie and I as he passed the chorten on the left as is customary.
Soon after leaving Pilling our path indented into a valley to the left and lost height to cross a minor tributary of the Kyalunpa Khola, the Dhundok Khola. We were somewhat surprised to find the river completely frozen and this confirmed that our overnight coldness wasn’t solely due to our lack of acclimatisation. It appeared that winter was coming sooner than we hoped. If confirmed this would have a significant impact on our approach to the trek, not because we were incapable of progressing on ice but because the ponies would struggle and the availability of food sourced locally may be reduced.
In the case of this relatively small river, for example, while we trekkers crossed the ice without difficulty our ponies could not cross laden. More precisely, while they might have been able to cross the bed of the river they were unable to regain the far bank due to the icy despite steps having been cut for them by their handler. Instead each pony had to be unloaded on the home bank and led across and then up onto the far bank unladen. Only then would they allow their burdens to be replaced.
From this time the horseman began reminding us that he was not engaged beyond the first 5 days out of Kagbeni and he was clearly concerned about getting back home safely. Five days out of Kagbeni would see us safely over Jungben La but not far thereafter and might result in us carrying our own bags from the high pass all the way to the next village where new ponies might be found. This was expencted to be Tinje – 3 days trek from the pass.
As we continued along the south side of the Kyalunpa Khola gorge we began to meet several groups coming the other way. First there was a herd of yaks bustling and snuffling eastward. Their herder confirmed he was heading for Kagbeni although this was no surprise given the only other village between here and there was the deserted Pilling. We moved smartly to the uphill side of the track to let these docile but wide and clumsy beasts, whose leader was a relatively rare pure white yak, pass. Being knocked down the mountain by a yak would be an ignominious end for a careless trekker. Second there was a herd of goats and after them more yaks. Was everyone leaving?
We then met our first trekking group of 9 Australians on a commercial trek from Juphal to Jomsom. Lizzie and I stopped for a chat about how things were going and they were quite chatty and clearly looking forward to completing their trek in 3 or 4 days time. After they passed we saw porter after porter carrying all manner of home goodies including tables, chairs and even a portable toilet. These Aussies had clearly been on the comfort trek. We counted a total support team of 20 porters and 13 ponies which rather put in perspective our frugality using 4 porters and 3 ponies and caused a degree of mirth. Nonetheless Lizzie and I bade them a hearty g’day, acknowledged to ourselves that any fool can be uncomfortable, and moved off. Unbeknown to us when they in turn met the Aussies Tim and Jovi had a brainwave. While the rest of us didn’t learn of this until later, Tim and Jovi realised that the horseman supporting the Aussies from Juphal to Jomsom would need to return to Juphal or thereabouts and would be keen not to do so ’empty’. While Juphal wasn’t our objective our planned route to Jumla went via Saldang and Bhijer, both of which are on the way to Juphal. Who knows, maybe the Aussie’s horseman woiuld be prepared to go to Jumla once he realised we were a good team? This wasn’t mentioned at the time; instead Tim, and Jovi our ace negotiator, agreed a very good price for the horseman to return immediately from Jomsom once he had completed his current contract and support us to Juphal in replacement for our current team of 3 ponies who we would lose in 3 days time. Furthermore Jovi negaotiated a team of 6, that being 1 pony and 5 mules, which meant that at Ghok we could release the 2-man porter support team who continued to disappoint and agaite to be released. We would then progress over the Jungben La with just 2 porters (the hugely strong and determined Gyalbu and Sangye) and 3 ponies until those nags were replaced by a team of 6. In light of the extra effort that would take, Tim and Jovi prepared to let the rest of know that there would be a rest day in Ghok tomorrow. What a result and well done Tim and Jovi! Ok, we got lucky meeting the Aussies but what inspired negotiating eh?
In the meantime, and oblivious to what was transpiring behind us, Lizzie and I together with Mark at this stage, continued west along some very precipitous cliff-clinging tracks. By around 11 am we had successfully negotiated another frozen river crossing, the Jharche Khola, and were glad to see the ponies had no difficulty this time as the river, though frozen, was largely dry.
Thereafter the track became even more ‘airy’ as we neared the point at which we would need to descend into the gorge and cross the Kyalunpe Khola onto the northern side in order to reach Ghok. Tim and Jovi had joined us again by now although hadn’t at this time shared their news. I think everyone was totally focussed on not slipping off the treacherous path. I sure was!
By 12:45 we were descending into the valley and were enjoying the spectacle of a herd of yaks being driven towards the same crossing point from the other side. Animal after animal was slipping and sliding down the path we were to climb. They all survived and the clouds of dust they produced was spectacular. Once they had passed us we moved down to the river. Following a short break during which I rinsed and re-donned my t-shirt, we crossed a small rustic stone bridge and headed up the yak track. Once we had gained some height we were able to look back across the gorge and see the yaks which had passed us negotiating the airy path recently survived by us. Seen from a distance the extraordinaty nature of our route was emphasised by the current occupants despite the poor photography. Look for the little black dots clinging to the mountainside to the left of centre and on the right. Don’t look down big guys!
Shortly after the magnificent sight of the yaks on the pathway we approached the village of Ghok. This involved yet another river crossing although it was only minor. The key issue was that the track down into the little gorge was too broken for laden horses. They were unladen and we carried our own main bags in addition to our day sacks down through the cut and up the steep eastern bank to the village which we reached by about 3:30. We were relieved to see this village had occupants however they apeared less that pleased to see us. Instead of the tentative welcome we hoped for they seemed to man the ramparts of the village, just watching us, massive Tibetan mastiff guard dogs growling.
Tim, Gyalbu and our horseman approached the villagers and a conversation developed unheard by the rest of us. Meanwhile we watched cafefully and noticed that the construction of this village was similar to that of Pilling. That could have been coincidence or simply a local style, but on returning to us Tim said that the people here were the residents of Pilling who had recently moved from their summer village to Ghok. Their winter village was better placed to make the most of winter sun and the reason thay had been wary of our arrival was that they had seen our lights last night in Pilling some miles away but clearly visible across the gorge at night and wondered who on earth we were. Our presence in Pilling would not have been notable if visitors were common but that wasn’t the case. While the horseman knew the people from a previous visit we were the first Westerners ever to visit Ghok. That took a while to sink in. Afterwards we were invited into the village and shown to a place where we could pitch our tents. This was an animal compound similar to that used last night which turned out to be on the roof of one of the villager’s houses as it had a chimney, i.e. a hole, in the middle of it.
In the setting sun we pitched our tents. While we were doing this Gyalbu was dismissing the 2-man porter support team. They were paid well for their work and were delighted to have been let off the hook. They had really bitten off more than they could chew and our style of trek was well beyond their expectation. They left without saying goodbye. We would now rely on Gyalbu and Sangye and the stregth of our ponies and ourselves to get over the Jungben La the day after tomorrow and then trust to the honesty of the Aussies’ horseman to return.
Meanwhile a number of inquisitive village children arrived to see the strange visitors. I showed them my ThermaRest and Neo-Air mattresses being inflated and made a fuss pretending my sleeping bag was alive by fighting with it. There was much laughter but I could see they were more astounded than amused. They had probably seen none of these things before and their faces spoke volumes. They were all agog when I showed them their photograph and photographs of my grandchildren on my iPhone which I was using as a camera.
Then a mother arrived, presumably on the pretext of making sure the kids weren’t being a nuisance or in any danger from the visitors. At this point Mark took over the show messing about with his large furry hat much to their and Gyalbu’s amusement.
Then something even more amazing happened.While we sat or repacked by our tents enjoying the last rays of the day an old Nepalese woman appeared in our midst. She had brought us some hot black tea which she poured from a flask and invited us to go down into her ‘house’ for dinner. Of course she would be paid and I’m sure the money would be very welcome but to be shown such hospitatilty when we were practically aliens to her was an extraordinary gesture.
In her 60’s she was dressed traditionally with dark robe and an apron striped in bands of red, blue and green but these garments and her brown cardigan were heavily sooted as were her face and hands. Her hair was jet black and wild. She wore heavy metal earrings and a metal amulet on her left wrist, and a necklace and right bangle of coral and turquoise. Most striking was her broad toothy grin and smiling eyes. We were as welcome in her house as we were permitted to pitch our tents on her roof.
The woman whose name, with regret, I never learned, led us to her main room beneath where we were camped. Access was down a ladder hewn from a single log and through a tiny ante-room filled with farming paraphernalia. Then through a low doorway on which we almost all bumped our heads we entered the room which functioned as kitchen, dining room, sitting room and bedroom. The room was low ceilinged and around 14 feet wide by 18 feet long, lit by a single small low-wattage lightbulb powered by a solar panel next to our tents on the roof. In the middle of the room was a squat rusty metal stove measuring around 4 feet long by 2 feet wide set in a stone hearth. At one end of the stove was a hatch through which fuel, either juniper branches or dried yak poo, was fed. At the other end a simple chimney pipe led smoke towards but not actually through a hole in the roof. Thus the room was very smoky. The top of the stove had room for 3 pots. These either sat in a purpose cut circular hole with their base directly over the fire and hot embers inside the stove, or on a metal plate placed over the circular hole. Around the stone hearth were not chairs but rugs on the floor. On one side only between the hearth and the rugs was a narrow bench of about 6 inches high and wide. This acted as a table and we visitors were invited to sit on the rugs on the other side of the table with our backs against the wall. Opposite us on the other side of the hearth or to one side of it 2 men were seated on rugs. The older of these was the husband of the lady we met earlier while the younger was their grandson, a tall handsome and grubby lad in his late twenties. Around the outside of the room on 3 sides were old wooden shelves at a variety of odd angles bearing pots, pans, glassware, cups and other assorted crockery and household bits and pieces. There were also spices, jars and cooking ingredients, and several thermos flasks. Nothing was in cupboards: everything was on show on narrow shelves. On the 4th side, the one at the end of the longer side of the room there was a partially screened alcove in which I believe the couple slept although no bed could be seen. I think that as we sat on the floor on rugs so the lady and her husband, and probably the grandson too, slept on the floor on rugs. Everything that could be seen in this dark sooty room, including the clothing that the family wore, was dark brown tending to black. Whether it started that colour or became it with age and long-term exposure to the smoke from the hearth, or just appeared it due to the low light I don’t know. But it was all brown tending to black now. There was no mains electricity, generator or gas. Water was collected in plastic containers either from a muddy spring further up the mountain or from the river we crossed on our way. But this rural Nepalese dwelling was homely and we were honoured to be the first Western people to see it.
The old lady prepared our dinner while we revelled in the warmth from the hearth and from the family’s invitation to join them. We were also warmed by the Raksi she heated in a kettle and served in small glasses. The ice was well and truly broken and Tim and Gyalbu were able to converse with them. They both commented however that it was not easy to follow a conversation as our hosts spoke a strange and unfamiliar dialect.
Dinner comprised Tibetan winter wheat pancake and a spicy soup of yak meat and potatoes. The mixture for each pancake was poured from a mixing vessel onto a flat metal pan on the stove. It was then periodically turned using a broad knife until done and then removed onto a pile on a hotplate. Then, using a corner of the rag used to insulate her hand from the heat of the pan handle, the lady scooped embers from the fire onto the flat metal pan and rubbed it until the pan was clean. She then used a different part of the rag to remove the debris before another measure of the winter wheat pancake mixture was poured into it and the process began again. This continued until 14 pancakes were piled on the hotplate; 2 for each of the 5 trekkers and 2 Sherpas. She and her family would eat later. By this time the soup was ready for serving into small bowls and these and the pancakes were put on the table for us together with a spoon each. Any peices of inedible yak bone or gristle were placed in a neat pile on the table until the first bowl was empty and not refilled at which time the inedible pieces were placed in it. Once everyone was finished and had refused another serving of the very tasty soup the bowls and spoons were removed. There was no dessert but the small Raksi glasses were refilled with the delicious warmed liquor, twice, among much smiling, nodding and appreciation of the family homebrew. Throughout the whole meal the woman did all the work. The men were convivial, especially the older man, but neither contributed in any way to preparing or serving the repast.
After dinner the polite Nepalese conversation continued for a while, some of which was translated for us by Tim. I was most intrigued when it became clear the family, in particular the older man, was talking about me. It transpired that he was 72 years old and was known univerally as ‘grandfather’. Apparently Tim had told him that I was a grandfather too and had 4 young grandchilderen back in the UK. The man immediately laughed and named me ‘Memi Tsamba’ which in the dialect of the area meant ‘new grandfather’. That proud name stuck for the rest of the trek among we trekkers, the Sherpas and anyone else we were speaking to. From that day on I was no longer Andy but Memi Tsamba. Others in our group were named too. Tim was ‘shaba’ meaning the one who likes meat. Mark was ‘memi ningma’ the old one – a little unfair as he wasn’t the oldest by some margin but maybe he’d had a bad day. Jovi was ‘changba lendhup’ the crazy one who drinks chang (in addition to Raksi). Most amusingly Lizzie, who was educated in a convent school and was partial to a glass or two of Raksi, was affectionately but not entirely accurately named ‘ani arakba’ – the drunken nun!
All the names were amusing and the conditions in which they came about in that dim, remote, smoky Nepalese room, will never be forgotten. But I was as pleased as punch and remain so to be for all time remembered by those kind and generous people as memi tsamba.