On the morning of 12th November were were up and about early. The journey to Shimen wasn’t especially far, about 11 or 12 miles. Nor was it especially difficult as we would be following the Panjyan Khola valley north-west with an aggregate height loss of around 300m. We were up early because we were all sleeping in the family room and Nepalese familes rise with the dawn, and so did we. By 7 am breakfast was being prepared and we were treated to porridge with meat and cheese again. On this occasion the father prepared the meat for cooking. He was cross-legged on a rug by the stove, with the meat on an empty nylon sack on the floor in front of him, hacking it into small pieces with bone and gristle included, using a kukri. A kukri (or khukuri) is a Nepalese knife with an inwardly curving blade similar to a machete, used as both a tool and a weapon. For over 2000 years the kukri has been, and in this household still is, the basic utility knife of the Nepalese. Perhaps along with the Bowie, stiletto and scimitar, the kukri is one of the most famous knives in the world having been immortalised by the formidable Gurkha soldiers.
After breakfast we took our time departing. My left eye had been getting increasingly sore and by this morning I thought I had a piece of grit under my contact lens. While I didn’t want to have to revert to wearing my glasses for the day, I could barely see through the streaming eye so I took the opportunity of a slow start to remove my lenses and find my specs in the main bag. Great care was taken walking that day as the last time I walked in glasses was in Corsica last year with an unfortunate result. With the lenses out there was a noticable reduction in discomfort and reverting to glasses proved to be the right decision.
As we left some local children were outside apparently eager to get another glimpse of the strange visitors to their village. Lizzie amused them with her Go-Pro, letting the kids see what she was filming. However apart from these youngsters we saw very few people and we were reminded again that the village, which 25 years ago had a population of over 1000, was significantly empty both of the people and their livestock.
As we left the village at 9 am along empty dusty and stony tracks confined by solidly built stone houses topped with firewood and white prayer flags, we saw one building with a swastika embedded in the wall. In the Western world the swastika is synonymous with fascism but it goes back thousands of years and has been used as a symbol of good fortune in almost every culture in the world. In the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, swastika means ‘well-being’. It was adopted by Hindus and Buddhists and was used in that context in Tinje. Our map showed there to be a health post and checkpoint in Tinje but we saw neither and weren’t checked, nor engaged by anyone as we left.
Outside the village, where low walls and barren dusty fields covered a considerable area, the only things on the dry dirt were a few children playing with tyres as if they were hoops from a bygone era. While endearing at one level the appearance of tyres, probably from a moped or light motorcycle as they were too big to have been cycle tyres, were another indication that times were changing in this part of Dolpo with the coming of the road on which we now walked.
A few miles down the valley our route reverted from a broad, typically 12 feet wide, flat dusty and stony track, which I believe was the Marim to Dho road. It became the type of track we were more familiar with; still dry, dusty and stony but the width of a yak or two and undulating with the surrounding terrain rather than cut through it. Quite where the road went at that point I’m not sure. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention as it veered to the right and headed for the Marim La and Tibet (China) beyond. Perhaps the contractors ran out of money and the road hasn’t been completed; but then how did the motorcycle being repaired in Tinje get there?
As we progressed along this section of our trek we saw more small settlements and religious sites than we had before.
First around the settlement of Phalwa we saw a collection of chortens that outnumbered the dwellings. While this collection included chortens of the ‘3-tier’ variety seen before there were others more grand. In the foreground was a maniwall. Mani stones are stone plates, rocks or pebbles that are inscribed with the six-syllable Buddhist mantra OM MA-NI PAD-ME HUM. These are not uncommon in areas of Nepal under the influence of Tibetan Buddhism, such as Dolpo. Maniwalls are entire walls comprising mani stones.
Further evidence of the impact of the road confronted us shortly as in the area of the chortens we saw a house being renovated with new windowframes made from cleanly dressed light wood. A sizeable stack of wood ready to be used for other purposes was next to the front door. This was not local wood as there arent any trees and nor is there a woodyard nearby. Indeed there may not be one in the whole of Dolpo, so this can only have been brought a considerable distance and it was unlikely to have been carried by yak.
Mid-morning we passed a family heading south; father with 2 mastiffs on leads and a packhorse and 3 yaks ahead and mother behind leading a white pony carrying their two children. We greeted tham and they us, and continued our journeys in opposite directions.
Towards lunchtime on an unusually straight section of track we saw a red-roofed building some distance ahead. This turned out to be Namyal, on a river bend where we found a small settlement, a monastery and chortens reached over a rustic wooden bridge bedecked with prayer flags. There was a good supply of clean water from a spring higher up the escarpment that backed Namyal so we took a Wei Wei noodle lunch in the courtyard in the company of 2 men who had just carried-in a supply of grain and other essentials. The settlement was empty and the goods were apparently for the resident monk who was also out at the time. In conversation with the older of the men it transpired that he was from Shimen where we were headed for the night. To our delight he offered us the use of a house in Shimen which he knew to be empty and his kindness was accepted enthusiastically. He said that he wouldn’t be in Shimen this evening but he described where it was and said to mention his name and everythjing would be fine. Shortly after our peace and reflection was shattered by a metallic green motorcycle heading down the track from left to right on the other side of the river; the track on which not 30 minutes previously we had exchanged greetings with the family with the children on horseback. To add to the engine noise, indeed seemingly to drown it out, the rider had a boogie-box stapped to the handlebars screeching out some form of music. It sounded like drum and bass which in other circumstances might be enjoyable, but not today, not here. The only other motor vehicle we had seen was being repaired in Tinje. Was this a vision of the future for Doplo? The probability of that saddened us and we moved out towards Shimen.
Our afternoon passed trekking steadily towards Shimen on familiar dusty, stony tracks beside a typically bubbling and rushing river that was increasingly frozen at its edges. The only difference to previous tracks was that this one now had a tyre print. Just one but it felt like the thin edge of the wedge. At least the track’s smoothness enabled good time to be made on foot and by 13:30 our gaze was being drawn along a line of chortens to Shimen in the distance. We reached it 30 minutes later.
We immediately headed for the house mentioned to us at lunch. As at previous villages it had the appearance of being empty but while the terraced fields and animal compounds were dry and barren there was smoke coming from the chimneys of some dwellings. We commented that ‘our’ house looked handsome in the afternoon sunshine; a tall stone dwelling appearing to be in good repair with a thick roof of juniper firewood and several white prayer flags fluttering in the light breeze. As we approached the house a young man and a woman we took to be his wife came to meet us. We explained our purpose and his face fell. This was the headman’s house and nobody had told the young man that there would be guests, and they weren’t prepared. Furthermore it wasn’t for the man we had spoken to at lunch to offer his masters house, of which they were housekeeprs, for use by trekkers!
He did at least offer to find somewhere else for us to stay, and did so shortly after so the afternoon wasn’t a disaster, just a surprise. Tim and Gyalbu went in search of alternative accommodation with the young Nepalese man and while they were gone a young boy emerged from the house and spent some time simply staring at us. I guess we did look a little unusual in our trekking gear and daypacks, with poles and colourful jackets and cameras.
After a while Tim and Gyalbu returned and, as good as his word, the headman’s housekeeper had found a family happy to accommodate and feed us. Having deposited our bags we took advantage of the early arrival and afternoon sunshine to explore the village which while narrow due to its proximity to the river was spread quite a long way along its bank. Next to the village school, a new building with single-story classrooms on 3 sides of a playground, we saw a white tent by the river. Looking a little out of place it warranted investigation. To our delight it proved to be a cafe/shop set out in the same manner of more established Nepalese rooms; a central stove surrounded by rugs and narrow benches or a piece of 4″ by 4″ acting as tables, with goods and chattels, in this case stock for sale, around the outside. It was being run by a young lad of aroud 14 while his mother was out collecting firewood. Being perennially hungry and thirsty we all went in, sat down, and ordered Lhasa beers and coke, and various cakes and nibbles. Tim even ordered a huge Chinese pot noodle before finding and buying the entire stock of what turned out to be our favourite snack – Chinese dried cherries. The young shopkeeper was in his element and even proved to be a tough negotiator when faced with Jovi’s careful approach to parting with money. He was the trek treasurer after all and looked after our kitty well.
After a while the mother of the young shopkeeper returned and the jovial mood of consumption continued. Despite his previous reticence Jovi threw caution to the wind and first bought 2 rugs to supplement the thin air mattresses that he and Lizzie were increasingly finding not to be up to the level of insulation we now needed as the night temperatures plummeted. Then much to everyone’s humour, not least the shopkeeper who couldn’t believe what he was seeing, Jovi bought a green, yak fur-trimmed, coat. It was at least 5 sizes too big but he bought it after having had it modelled by the lady who owned the shop. During this time a group of village children came in and were delighted when they were all given a share of the sweets we had bought, although some had to be shown how to unwrap them. Only after he had bought the coat did Jovi find a huge rip under the left armpit – but that didn’t matter and he proudly wore it for the rest of the day. Changba Lendhup, Jovi’s Nepalese nickname meaning ‘the crazy one who drinks Chang’ really lived up to his name!
Once it got dark the shop had to close and we found our way back across the fields to our accommodation. We had passed a really fun couple of hours in the shop and probably assured the young shopkeeper’s education for the next year or two!
That evening we enjoyed a small bowl of dried meat, sukurte, followed by the customary meat soup and flatbread, with a Raksi or two to follow. The room was in the same format we were used to but was better lit by solar energy than some and had one or two unexpected embellishments. The wall units were adorned with pictures of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, inconguously adjacent to a Nepalese woman dressed as Wonder Woman, while in one corner was a modern stack music system connected to a 12v battery charged by solar power. On the floor in addition to the rugs were 3 plastic stools in pink and green and there were 2 formica-topped tables. We guests still sat on the rugs, as did the mother and father. The modern furniture was for the 3 children!
We all slept in that room over night while the family went elsewhere, returning early the following day. Jovi even slept in his new coat, on his new rug, and in the morning declared himself much warmer. It was just as well that he, and Lizzie, were pleased with his purchases as they were a considerable additional burden for our mules to carry!