As the last 2 days have been fairly tough and while we continue to acclimatise ready for the push over Jungben La tomorrow, today, Monday 7th November, is a rest day. Despite that, following another chilly night Gyalbu and Sangye brought us bed tea at 6:30 and several refills thereafter. Once the sun hit our tents at 7:30 there was no further excuse for laziness and we were up and ready for breakfast. Today I managed the amount of tsampa added to my tea, finding that 2 spoonfulls is plenty to get a drinkable consistency. Mmm yummy tsampa porridge. Cue another bout of food fantasy.
The night hadn’t only been chilly but noisy too with one of the village Nepalese mastiffs barking ferociously most of the night. It is usual for nomads’ camps and remote villages to be guarded by big black or brindle mastiffs. I understand that these are so fierce that travellers carry a charm portraying a savage dog in chains. During the day these dogs are chained but at night they roam free as sentinals and guards. What we had heard all night was a dog at work. Sometimes close and sometimes at some distance, first in one direction then another. It was particularly frantic just after midnight when it sounded to be some way up the hill directly behind our tent compound, after which its ire subsided a little. In the morning we learned from a villager that a yak had been killed up there during the night by a snow leopard. That would certainly explain the dog’s excitement!
After an hour or so of taking photographs of the village in early sun, generally messing about with the solar charger and trying to figure out why my satphone posts hadn’t been getting through to the blog I finally had success with the latter. The penny dropped that there was a limit on how many characters could be sent before the satphone re-inserted the email address; an action that caused the post to fail. This didn’t happen normally and impacted only the satphone. Thus I had to limit each satphone email post to a single block of text comprising less than 100 characters. I was pleased at last to be able to send an update on where we were and let folks know we were fine. It was very basic, saying ‘Hi all, we are in the village of Ghok near Santa and all is well. More to follow if this post is successful’. I knew by then that there was no village called Santa but that is where my earlier posts had said we would be so I figured I would refer to it to avoid any concern at home about us being off route. We were after all still in the Santa area which comprised Pilling and Ghok. If I could have posted photographs of Ghok these 2, both taken at about 9 am, would have been my selection.
First the view of the village from further up the mountain when I went to the spring for water. Children are playing in the dry and dusty terraced fields centre right and the escarpment we crossed testerday is beyond. At centre left (although very small) may be seen some of our group on the roof where our tents are pitched.
Second our tents (L to R) Mark’s, Lizzie’s, mine, Jovi’s and Tim’s next to piles of juniper firewood with solar chargers hanging on the wall to catch the best sun.
At mid-morning with the hot sun high in the sky Lizzie and I took the opportunity to rinse some of the thick dust out of our clothes and maybe give the wet wipes a break from cleansing duty. Tim was going to join us but in the end asked us to rinse some of his stuff too, which we did. We headed down the steep path to the bottom of the little gorge we had crossed just outside the village for a wash. There being nobody else in sight we found our own spaces down by the side of the river and, separated by 20 feet or so and each facing in opposite directions, removed enough to be able to make the most of clean running ice cold water. Much of the river was frozen but there remained enough of a flow to rinse the clothes removed and drape them over a warm rock to dry out a little then splash ourselves and towel dry before putting on glorious, warm, clean and fresh underwear, socks and t-shirts. It was quite an operation but the opportunity to get some of the dust off ourselves and feel clean again (even if we weren’t really) was very welcome. After 20 mins or so boots went back on and our still wet washing was put into a plastic carrier bag and we headed back to the crossing. As we were negotiating the best route we heard a loud and urgent cry from above. Looking up we could see nothing but a cloud of dust – then the cry came again with more urgency and we realised something serious was afoot. Then, not more than 30 feet above us, a pair of yak horns appeared, followed by a head and the body moving at speed in our direction. Recognition of the situation was instant – a herd of yaks were being driven down the hill above us and we were directly in their path through the little gorge and up the other side to Ghok! Lizzie and I dashed upstream as far as we could go just as the lead animals careered down the last few feet of the hillside and barreled across the river. There was dust and mayhem everywhere and we were so lucky that the herders had seen us in time to raise the alarm. In the event we had a ringside seat at an amazing spectacle that could hardly be seen due to the dust. After it was over we had a huge laugh about the diligence we had exercised in getting clean only to be covered in grime again not 5 minutes later. At least the washed clothes were in a bag and had remained clean even if we hadn’t.
After returning to the village and enjoyjng a customarily early lunch of buckwheat bread, yak and potato soup and tea my restlessness got the better of me and I went for a walk. Our route tomorrow would take us past what the trekking map referred to as Ghalden Ghulden Khola camp but which we now knew as the blue shack. As this was only a couple of miles away it was only a pleasant stroll in the sunshine away. This is the view of the blue shack from the westard side of the little gorge where Lizzie and I encountered the yaks earlier. The shack may be seen in the centre of the picture. The approach is from lower right and the onward route to Jungben La may be seen above.
Once I reached the shack I was delighted that we hadn’t stayed there as had been the original plan. It was a tip. Quite why fellow trekkers would come all this way, paying considerable money for the priveledge and committing significant time to do so, and then strew litter is beyond me.
From the campsite, rather than start up the trail to the pass I went towards the gorge and up a hill on top of which I could see a small chorten. Once there I was checking directions and distances on the GPS when I became aware of a herdsman calling to a sizeable flock of goats coming down the mountainside towards me. After a few mnutes he left the flock and came over to my vantage point and sat down. There followed several minutes of conversation, or attempted conversation given he had no English and I have no Nepali beyond ‘Namas-te!’ and ‘Tashi Delay’. Namaste is an ancient Sanskrit greeting still in everyday use in India and especially on the trail in the Nepalese Himalaya. Translated roughly it means “I bow to the God within you”, or “the Spirit within me salutes the Spirit witin you”. Tashi delay is a Tibetan greeting that means ‘I honour the greatness in you’. So we exchanged greetings and names, me introducing myself as memi tsamba, then struggled thereafter. However we were able to establish that we were both going to Ghok and would sleep there tonight. We then smiled and nodded and bade each other Namaste (which serves for hello and goodbye) and I headed back to Ghok leaving the herder with his flock. Sure enough, later that day a flock was driven into the compound below our tents and I recieved a cheery wave and call from the herder as he arrived. Regrettably he declined a photo but I will treasure the cameo of our faltering discussion on that remote hillside in the sunshine. It really doesn’t matter that we couldn’t actually converse as there was a level of understanding between us that was beyond words.
In the afternoon sun I put my sleeping bag on the roof of my test to air in the warmth and solar charged all my tech: iPhone, GPS, satphone and iPod. Remarkably, not long afterwards our replacement pony and mules arrived a day earlier than expected and with a different horseman to the one with whom Tim and Jovi had negotiated. How he had managed it we don’t know but the horseman they spoke to had managed to split his string of animals so that 6 were made available to us immediately with a deputy horseman while the leader continued to Kagbeni with a reduced string supporting the Aussies. He would then return to support us while the deputy took the spare nags back to Juphal. This was remarkable planning and we were delighted. The owner of our original 3 ponies was also delighted that he wasn’t going to have to go over (and return over) the Jungben La. Everyone was happy. The original horseman was paid and released, the replacement string of 6 nags would enable our Sherpas not to be over-burdened, and we trekkers could continue with relatively light day sacks. Result!
While all this was going on Sangye was entertaining a group of village children with card tricks until Lizzie’s Go-Pro proved more of a draw. I sneaked this picture while she was filming and Sangye reluctantly put the cards away.
During the afternoon, in the margins of the excitement over horses, there were also frequent trips up the hill to pee. The acclimatisation process, and more importantly protection against the effects of altitude, requires the consumption of 3 to 4 litres of water a day all of which needs to be sterilised prior to drinking. That much water together with frequent cups of diuretic tea has a predictable result but going to the loo in rural Nepal is never a problem, at least not for chaps. There are no toilets, not even in peoples houses in places like Ghok. You just find somewhere outside the village and ‘go’. Commonsense is required and discretion is appreciated. For a pee you don’t go in or close to a river and the girls go a little further away in search of privacy than the boys, but in a barren landscape distance and mutual discretion may be the only privacy available. Where solids are involved then the distance needs to be greater and subsequent burial of all materials under a rock or mound of earth is expected not least as it serves to show where the best places to go are. In a land where toilets, even the long-drop variety, are few and far between, animals are everywhere, and their dried dung is the best almost smokeless fuel around, one soon gets used to the absence of Western mod-cons. But thank goodness for wet-wipes. The rural Nepalese don’t have those either and appear generally indifferent to their and their childrens’ cleanliness, but when shrouded in dust within moments of each wash, hands are forever grimy and icy river water doesn’t appeal, wet-wipes are an essential item in every trekkers pack.
Moving to more savoury matters, in late afternoon we once again ate with the family living beneath us. We had another delicious yak and potato soup but this time served with spicy rice; and there was plenty of it. As yesterday the lady did all the work while the men, mostly ‘old grandfather’, talked with Tim and Gyalbu. As tomorrow was to be a long and tough day we didn’t tarry after dinner although we did stay for some Raksi of course. Once dinner was over we departed at a time that enabled the family to eat before it got too late. Remarkably by 7pm we were all in our tents; probably in sleeping bags too as the temperature drops sharply once the sun goes down. Some people were reading. I was listening to music on my iPod and making pencil notes from the day in my notebook. Others went straight to sleep in preparation for early morning bed-tea.
This would be our last night in Mustang. Once over the Jungben La we shall at last be in Dolpo!