The morning of Wednesday 9th November (day 7 of the trek) dawned bright. By 8 am the sun had already cleared the Timalibahl Danda ridge to our south-east and was flooding our previously grey and desolate campsite and the rolling hills nearby with golden sunshine. The Thasan Khola had frozen overninght but Sangye was still able to find some water for tea with enough left for our breakfast staple of tsampa porridge.
To our amazement, blinking in the brightness of the early rays, we saw many more ponies and mules than had been sharing our space the previous evening. True to his word the horseman released by the Australian team at Jomsom had raced back to join us with the now-unladen remainder of his team. While this was planned but we didn’t expect him to get back so quickly, nor to travel overnight. Immediately after breakfast the previous (deputy) horseman departed with 7 nags while his boss remained to support us going forward; ostensibly to Juphal.
The photo below shows the happy scene that morning with the team having a stand-up breakfast while our sleeping bags air in the sunshine. The delapidated shelter in which we ate dinner and in which Gyalbu and Sangye slept is on the left. The frozen river is just out of sight in the dip beyond.
At 9:30 we set off to Chharka Bhot in the face of a chill north wind and with the sun yet to share much warmth. In her book ‘Great Himalaya Trail: 1,700 Kilometres Across the Roof of the World’, the German adventurer Gerda Pauler described the walk from Nalungsumda Kharka to Chharka Bhot as a ‘Sunday promenade’. She referred to ‘the first shepherds having arrived at the green pastures where they would spend the summer months in the maze of valleys, wandering around with their yaks and horses to find the best grass’. She went on to describe ‘an idyllic area with numerour brooks, creeks and streams coming down from the side valleys, the trickling, gurgling and babbling sounds of which were music to her ears’. Apparently elation gripped her and she wanted to dance down the valley.
Several month later the shepherds and their flocks had gone and taken the grass with them. The numerous water courses were now mostly frozen or being so and the trickling, gurgling and babbling sounds, where they still existed, were muted by the wind whistling in our ears. Don’t misunderstand me, our surroundings were still beautiful in th emorning sunshine especially in comparison with Mustang, but the picture of rural idyll conjured by Gerda was two seasons earlier. It was then an austere land from which most living creatures had departed and we followed suit.
Unlike the deep, angular Kyalunpa Khola gorge we had followed to Ghok and beyond, the Thasan valley was less hemmed in by intimidating rock. The sandy-coloured bluffs either side of the boulder-strewn valley rose at a less steep angle allowing more sunshine to invigorate the land. I could well understand how, during spring, Gerda Pauler had been enthralled.
During the first few miles of our journey today the going was tough and often entailed hopping from boulder to boulder rather than striding down a sandy path. This was largely due to being able to walk in the bottom of the valley as the river had receded. I daresay in the springtime when the river is swollen with meltwater and the paths further up the hillsides are preferred, then the going would be easier. Eventually the valley opened up and, with the occasional reversion to negotiating paths around little gorges, we were able to walk on sandy tracks as they meandered through areas of sparse yellow vegetation. Occasionally in the valley bottom there were small patches of scrub, but the land above the snaking river was predominantly dry, loose sand and scree on jagged escarpment. The scene was topped off by an intense blue cloudless sky.
Just before 1 pm we stopped for lunch at the confluence of the Thasan Khola and the Chharkha Tulsi Khola. This was later than usual but we’d had a leisurely start and were already over two-thirds of the way to Chharka Bhot; now just 6 miles or so away. While the Wei Wei noodles were being prapared I took the opportunity to rinse my t-shirt and splash some icy water over myself by way of a freshen up. It would stretch the imagination to call it a wash, but it was better than nothing. By this time of day even though we were still at well over 4000m the sun was warm and I enjoyed 20 minutes or so in the sunshine while waiting for the t-shirt to dry a little. By the time the noodles were served I’d had my vitamin D solar recharge and the damp t-shirt was donned.
Following lunch we resumed our journey down the river which was now called the Chharka Khola. After a while the wide open valley again became constricted and our way was more treacherous and steep as rocky chasms were passed. The nature of the terrain alternated between open and rocky for a few miles until we crossed the Philang Khola which joined from the north-east. Shortly after we crossed the Chharka Khola to its south-west bank on a very long suspension bridge. The photo below looks back to the bridge after we had crossed. The change in vegetation beween the the area of the bridge and the less vertiginous ‘pasture’ we were on previously is clear. Less clear are our nags. Two of them are approaching the middle of the bridge from the left, three are just to the left of the bridge and one, clearer due to the white bags it is carrying, is still making its way down the path to the left of the bridge.
After another crossing of the river, this time via a much less interesting but very practical blue-painted box girder construction, we approached Chharka Bhot. In his wonderful book ‘The Snow Leopard’ Peter Matthiessen noted that for centuries the Hindus came to Nepal up along the river valleys from the great plain of the Ganges, while Tibetans crossed the mountain passes from the north. He explained that the Tibetan-speaking Buddhist tribes, which included the Sherpas, were called ‘Bhotes’ meaning southern-Tibetans and that B’od and Bhot meant Tibet. Chharka could be derived from Kharka which means ‘resting place’. (You may recall the place we stopped for lunch on the first morning out of Kagbeni was called Yak Kharka – a yak resting place). Thus the name Chharka Bhot may mean ‘the resting place of the Tibetan Buddhists’.
Chharka Bhot sits at the confluence of the Chyanjun and Chharka Kholas at a height of just over 4,300m (over 14,000ft); higher than any settlement in Europe. There didn’t seem to be much arable land in evidence with no hint of the extensive terracing seen at the previous villages visited in Mustang; Pilling and Ghok. Moreover, one part of the viillage, presumably the original part on the western bank of the Chyanjun Khola, looked like a fortress set upon ramparts. Maybe the Tibetan-speaking buddhists weren’t welcome here.
The settlement on the eastern side of the Chyanjum Khola was more open although the animal compounds that surrounded the dwellings appeared to form a protective wall around the village. There was however an obvious entry point and route through the village and unlike the initial suspicion felt at Ghok, the people of Chharka Bhot welcomed us. There were many men, women and children in the street and within their compounds people were busy about their business. Those we met appeared happy and a little curious and we exchanged many ‘Namaste’s’ and ‘Tashi delays’ with steepled hands and a slight bow. The children greeted their strange visitors too, although dissapointingly their greeting was often followed by a cheeky ‘give me a pen!’ at which we laughed and moved on as we hadn’t gone bearing gifts. The men typically wore grubby work-a-day clothes while the women were dressed traditionally: the long dark sleeveless robe with colour-striped apron and belt we had seen previously, worn with a long-sleeved top or cardigan either under or over the robe. Unexpectedly, many of the compounds were filled with yaks: indeed Chharka Bhot was full of yaks and we figured this might explain why for the second day we had seen no animals during our walk. With the onset of winter the beasts had been herded from pastureland into winter quarters, and a proportion were being butchered to feed the villagers for the next few months. It transpired that 40 yaks had been butchered that day and more were for the chop tomorrow.
I have been referring to ‘yaks’ as a general term. In fact not all of the large horned animals we have seen have been yaks at all. Only the male of the species is called a yak. The female, which some will be able to visually differentiate from the male but I struggle from a respectful distance, is called the ‘bri’. To confuse the recognition process still further a yak-cattle hybrid is called a ‘dzo’. For now I’ll just refer to ‘yaks’ and hope to be excused any unintentional gender insensitivity.
A surprising aspect of Chharka Bhot was the large number of two-story dwellings, or three-story if you include cellars. I understood multi-story houses were the preserve of the local headman and other civic nobility. Typically stone-built but often with a white(ish) facia, both the single and double-story houses still featured square brown or orange-painted window casements. Most casements were decorated with patterns and colours along their upper lintel. Sometimes there were narrow bars across the windows and sometimes exterior blinds could be seen. Every roof was stacked in firewood and featured flagpoles bearing prayer flags while some had stone chimneys. The overall impression was of a neat village in which the residents had pride and had gone to greater lengthds than we had seen previously to make it presentable. Even most of the external compound wall included encased wooden doors and walls with decorative capstones, even if the only decoration was a different colour of stone.
We were searching for the yak hotel which had been recommended. No sleeping bag in a tent for us tonight – we were going to a hotel! We found the Himalayan Hotel camping and shoping centre (sic) which offered service for Nepali breakfast, lunch and dinner. It even had a mobile phone number on the sign, somewhat incongruously given there was no signal here. We kept search up and down the single street and found the Chharka Shopping Centre but it was closed and the Charka Caravan Hotel next door likewise. We kept walk in to the end of the village and found ourselves confronted by the fortress. turning round and heading back into the new village we saw the sign. It only faced west, clealy indicating they weren’t expecting customers from the east. It proudly proclaimed itself as the Daulagiri Yak Hotel and Shoping centre. At least the other hotels had proper signs. Maybe this was actually a hotel for yaks? Putting reservations to one side as it was nearly 5 pm and the light was failing fast, we entered the enclosed grubby courtyard beyond which was the entrance in a white distempered wall topped in firewood.
Nailed invitingly over and to the right of the wooden doorway was a yak’s head with its horns wrapped in a red ribbon, so maybe it wasn’t a yak but a bri. Beneath the head was an advert for the hotel. The writing was Nepali but the photographs were self explanatory and offered Signature whiskey, Khukri rum, food, either meat and greens with rice or meat and potatoes with buckwheat bread, and a variety of hot and cold crinks including coffe, cafe latte, Pepsi &-Up and fruit juices. Most tempting was GROBUT beer in cans or bottles. GROBUT? We had to laugh. The photograph had been printed back to front and nobody noticed. It was, of course, Tuborg lager!
Throwing caution to the wind, and bearing in mind it was getting dark, this ‘hotel’ was recommended (but by whom nobody could remember), our ponies were already in the compound with us and the bags were being unloaded by the anorak-clad horseman (suggesting this was his recommendation) and especially noting all the other hotels were closed, we allowed ourselves to be shown to our rooms.
Through a gate into another animal compound strewn with hay and dung and up a ladder we went. The ladder was of the ‘hewn from a single log’ variety and gave access to the upper level where we found two newly built stone shelters, each with 2 rooms. In each was some printed drapery by way of decoration and some wooden platforms covered in rugs (but no mattress). The floor was covered in dirt and dust but then so were we so that wasn’t a problem. Mark and I were to share one room while Tim and Jovi were to share another. Lizzie was to have one on her own but closer inspection showed no sleeping platform or bed, no rugs and no lock on the door. After a discussion or two with our host which achieved no improvement she decided the easiest thing would be for her to share in one of the other rooms. As Mark and my room was bigger than Tim and Jovi’s and already had a third sleeping platform and a rug Lizzie shared with us.
Mark then proceeded to the ‘toilet’ over the other side of the lower compound and came back amused that it was a long drop straight down to the river bank and was relieved that he hadn’t missed his footing and taken the long drop himself! Subsequent visits were very cautiously executed both before and after entering the ‘toilet’. By then the compound was occupied by several horses and a careless night-time journey could easily have spooked one and earned a kicking. Mercifully I survived that night with a pee bottle – no easy feat sharing a room with two others but immeasurably preferable to upsetting the horses or risking ‘the drop’.
Dinner that evening was in the main room of the dwelling which doubled as the hotel dining room. By now it was clear this wasn’t a hotel at all in the Western sense, rather a family offering bed, breakfast and evening meal to travellers – and that was just perfect. It meant we would eat with the family as we had in Ghok. It also meant that as we weren’t so intrusive I could take a couple of photographs. I still couldn’t use flash which reduced the quality somewhat, but never mind. You will hopefully recognise the style of the room and its fittings as being very similar to what we saw in Ghok. As in Ghok it was lit by a single low-wattage lightbulb powered by a solar panel. This first picture shows our horseman sitting at the stove on a block of wood having taken on responsibility for getting the fire going. You can see in front of him the trivet through which he fed wood and dung. On top and to the side of the stove are pots and pans. The kettle on the stove contained Raksi being warmed. Beyond the stove are the shelves of flasks, kitchen cutlery and various jars and cups. The stove pipe can just be seen to the right. To the bottom right you can see a red-topped table which didn’t feature in ghok, but there are still no chairs.
This next picture shows Sangye, Jovi and Tim sitting on a low bench to the right of the stove pipe with a thermos flask of tea against a backdrop of a narrow wall storage unit. The decoration on the frontage is intricate and well beyond anything seen previously suggesting the owner of the hotel to be of significant means by local standards. It is still very dark and the photograph has been enhanced to show this detail. I wasn’t fully aware of the decorative wall unit until I enhanced the photo, such was the smoke and murk in the room when it was taken.
Dinner this evening was a starter of sukurte (dried meat) followed by a main of Tibetan bread and a meat soup, inevitably complete with bones and gristle. Raksi was also served several times which confirmed my determination not to brave the air-drop toilet. We didn’t try the GROBUT, or the cafe latte which apparently was an indicator of what might be availabe rather than what was available. The evening was a lot of fun not least as the room filled up after a while with several local people who had ‘popped in’ for a Raksi and to see the Yak Hotel’s unusual guests. The awkwardness of Ghok had gone. Other than Tim and the Sherpas we still couldn’t understand much of what was being said but it was obviously good natured and inquisitive and with a room full of people actually felt cozy.
By 7:30 pm the evening was over and we headed for our beds, or more correctly our sleeping bags on the rug-covered sleeping platforms. These made a really welcome change from a tent and the lack of a mattress wasn’t a problem. Despite appearances it was rather jolly and Mark, Lizzie and I entertained ourselves in the pitch black listening to some of Mark’s collection of Sandi Toksvig’s ‘The News Quiz’. After a couple of episodes, it having been a long day and with bed-tea due at 5 am, I fell asleep. Apart from the judicious and very discrete use of my pee bottle at about 3 am I had a fairly good night’s sleep. I was pleased in the morning when Lizzie reported no significant snoring noise pollution, but then Mark countered with a hilarious adjunct. Apparently, later in the evening after I had fallen asleep but while he and Lizzie were still chuckling at ‘The News Quiz’, Mark had turned up the volume so Lizzie could hear better. Within a few minutes he said I, from the platform next to him, was sleepily tapping him on the shoulder saying “Clare darling, Clare darling, its very loud….” at which point I turned over and returned to sleep while he and Lizzie were left in stitches!
Day 7 had proven to be a good day as the following night we would be back in tents.