Sunday 13th November began as the previous day had, at dawn with the return of the family in whose room we had slept. While we rolled and packed our sleeping bags, water bottles and other items used overnight, the children pretended to mooch around the room but were actually watching us intently and with great curiosity. Meanwhile the adults, still curious about us but less obviously so than the kids, busied themselves with getting heat into the stove, cutting meat, preparing breakfast and making Nepalese butter tea.
Butter tea is a traditional drink made from tea leaves, yak butter, water and salt. Preparation begins with boiling the tea leaves in water until the liquid is dark brown when the infusion is strained into a wooden butter churn to which salt and a large lump of yak butter is added. We saw these devices at every house we visited but we weren’t always expected to drink this Nepalese brew. The churn vessel is a wooden cylinder about 4 inches in diameter and 18 inches or so long which is sealed at one end. It is constructed using a similar process by which a cooper makes watertight barrels bound with metal hoops. The equivalent to the cooper’s hoops around a Nepalese churn are ornately decorated metal sheaths about an inch wide. Ensuring the churn remains upright the tea-maker then with both hands on the handle pushes and pulls a wooden plunger up and down inside the churn, ensuring that the liquid is ‘churned’ without spilling from the top of the cylinder. Once the tea has been churned to the proper consistency it is poured into a teapot or other container which is placed on the stove to keep it warm. Drinking butter tea is a regular part of Tibetan life, and the life of people who live the Tibetan way in Nepal, such as the Dolpa-pa. Sometimes tsampa is added to give the drink a thicker consistency. Since butter is the main ingredient, butter tea provides plenty of caloric energy, is particularly suited to high altitudes and is a staple drink of Sherpas. Its slightly rancid flavour is an aquired taste for those more familiar with Chinese or Indian tea which typically does not contain butter. Traditionally the tea cup is kept filled to the brim after each sip. The only way for those for whom yak butter tea is not a favourite but who wish not to offend their host is to take one or two small sips but otherwise leave the cup untouched until the last moment before draining the bowl and making a hasty departure. With many thanks, steepling of fingers and a hearty ‘Namaste!’ of course! This photograph of churns is courtesy of John Hill, on Wikipedia.
After a breakfast of a thin meat and cheese soup thickened with tsampa and a few sips of yak butter tea I excused myself to one of the formica-topped tables that was placed by the window for the children to use. Having a good light was important as I was about to put in new contact lenses. My left eye had stopped smarting overnight following my resorting to specs the previous day and I was anxious to put some new lenses in today. The children were not paying too much attention until they saw me balancing a tiny lens on my right forefinger, hold open my left eyelid with my left hand and then put the lens onto my eyeball. At that point you could have heard a pin drop as the whole family, adults and children, silently gathered in a line just to my right, jaws dropped watching this crazy person shoving his finger in his eye while looking into a small mirror on their table. At the second attempt the lens was settled on my left eye and I studiously, but slightly nervously, repeated the process with the right eye. I was enormously relieved that the second lens went in first time and I didn’t have to rinse it after dropping it on the grubby table as I had with the first eye. Putting my glasses in my daysack and tidying away the mirror and lens holder I looked at the family, blinked theatrically, and smiled. Then we all laughed together and the moment was over. It hadn’t ocurred to me until then that our hosts had never before seen a contact lens.
We departed just after 8 am and after crossing Panjyang Khola by a wooden bridge headed steadily uphill towards the Shimen La. This was the first pass to be crossed today although at a modest 4260m (13,976ft) we had only 400 metres (1300ft) to climb. Once over the pass we lost half of the height gained as we descended into the Koran Khola valley, crossed the river and skirted the village of Khoma. It was then uphill again, 600 metres (around 2000 ft) to our second pass of the day, the 4460m (14,632ft) Khoma La.
The going over both of these passes was the same as on the previous day; dusty, stoney, sandy tracks over rugged terrain with occasional low scrub but no other vegetation. Furthermore we saw no wildlife, no cattle and no people. Apart from a few souls in Khoma the mountains were as empty of humans as they were of other forms of life and it felt very strange. We were used to not seeing many people but only rarely had we seen none at all. This continued for the rest of the day; surprising given that today’s route took us, for a change, not on the Great Himalayan Trail but on a supposedly more frequented main trekking route.
Our lunch was yak buttered flatbread and fried potatoes that had been made for us by our hosts in Shimen. What a treat: Nepalese chip butties! These were devoured in the sunshine shortly after crossing the Khoma La.
At lunchtime we were hoping to be able to refill our water bottles but the rivers were completely frozen. Our disappointment was eased by sight of a spectacular frozen waterfall.
Our path to Saldang followed the valley all the way and only towards the end of the day did it contain flowing water. By then we were too low to take a chance on it being clean and decided to wait until we could get fresh water in Saldang.
Our first sight of Saldang was truly spectacular, appearing as it did spread over several levels and a considerable distance, on the north-east-facing mountainside across the Nagaon Khola. Saldang was the biggest village seen to date and we understood it to have a population in the order of 2000. Above and below the village the land was extensively terraced but at this time of year it was barren, dry and dusty.
As we approached the village, while some people and ponies could be seen the village appeared lightly occupied. The only colours in the village other than dust-brown thin soil came from the setting sun which illuminated and back-lit the red, green, blue, yellow and white prayer flags flying above most houses, and an ochre-walled monastery towards the northern side of the village.
Then a cry went up; from Gyalbu who had seen a flock of the elusive blue sheep on the other side of the river valley we were following. We counted 20 blue sheep, or bharal as they are also known, on an incredibly steep escarpment. I did take some photographs but the animals were so far away and so well camouflaged they are almost impossible to see. Look upper-centre below the small dry river bed.
Could you see them? The so-called blue sheep which are neither sheep, nor blue? In ‘The Snow Leopard’ Peter Matthiessen describes them like the Rocky Mountain sheep, short-legged, strong, broad-backed, quick and neat-footed and having gold demonic eyes and the males of the species being a handsome slaty blue. Well that may be so, but they were too far away for us to see their stature or the colour of their eyes. Indeed we believe that the beasts we saw were female as they looked dull, which is how Peter described the female pelage. As for their ‘sheep’ title, apparently (according to Tim, Gyalbu and Wikipedia) they are actually goats. Matthiessen’s principal interest in these animals was due to them being the favoured prey of the snow leopard and where one is found the other is likely not far away. If we found the bharal hard to see the snow leopard would be a hundred-fold harder to spot. After a few minutes straining our eyes to no avail we moved on.
As we approached Saldang down a precipitous track made treacherous by deep dust concealing little rocks with the size and charateristics of ball-bearings we could see the wide river below spanned by a wooden bridge. There was still a lot of ice on the river banks but at least there was some flowing water. 100m over the other side we approached the first occupied house and were welcomed by a woman in traditional dress and a monk who transpired to be the woman’s husband. Their house was neat and well tended. Their main room was in the same format seen previously with a central stove and hearth surrounded by rugs and wall units bearing household artefacts. However as this house was well above ground there were windows to give light in addition to the solar power-driven bulb. In addition, this house had a wide courtyard for our horses and tents, and 2 other rooms. Thinking to get ahead of the game and put my tent up in daylight I erected mine immediately. By the time others considered doing the same Tim told us we had been offered, and had accepted, rooms to sleep in.
We were served a delicious dinner of ‘normal’ tea and yak nibbles (small pieces of fried dried yak meat) followed by buckwheat bread and yak curry. After dinner we tried the Raksi and were disappointed having been spoiled by the excellent quality of the Raksi served last night in Shimen. It was then that we spotted some Lhasa beer for sale and a bottle of wine; a sweet Spanish red wine of indeterminate grape variety. Jovi expertly negotiated a fair price with the monk who appeared delighted to have found a buyer for the wine which, judging by its thick layer of dust, had been unsold for some time. It actually turned out to be better than we feared and contributed to a fun evening during which each of we trekkers in turn played music from our respective iPhones, iPods, etc though a mini speaker that Mark had packed for just such an occasion. The monk and his wife and their son, an amiable strapping chap in his 20’s sat with us during the evening and appeared to be enjoying our odd selections of music as much as we did. They did however decline the wine – clearly they knew its history!
Eventually our hosts departed to their room and we were given the main room and one of the others for sleeping. Tim and Mark shared one while Jovi and Lizzie shared the other. I could have slept in either but as my tent and gear were already ready I elected to go into the tent where I could read with a light on and afterwards snore without rebuke.
Before we retired it was agreed that the following day would be a rest day. We had travelled in the order of 120 miles so far and needed a break, not least to do some washing. Less happily Tim advised us that he had some worrying news the implications of which we would need to consider carefully the following day. There were 3 main issues which we needed to sleep on.
The first and most concerning was that our horseman had been approached earlier that evening about supporting us to Jumla. He insisted that he was told we were going to Juphal where he lived. Whatever the truth of the matter our route to Jumla was due west from Saldang to Bhijer and then north-west. He was most unhappy and flatly refused to change his route. He said that going north at this time of year was madness and apart from that his horses would be unable to cross ice when laden as had been the case getting to Ghok. There would soon be snow in the high passes and he wanted no part of our misadventure. We had joked earlier in the trek about embarking on ‘a foolhardy walk into the jaws of death’ but it seems that this is exactly what the horseman was concerned about. He was taking his horses south-west from Saldang to Juphal via Shey Gompa, with or without us.
The second issue was that Tim had tried to secure alternative pack animals and a handler in Saldang, but there were none to be had. The main trekking season was over and the village was emptying as the villagers headed for their winter dwellings. The penny suddenly dropped. We had already found Pilling completely empty and its people in Ghok. While Chharka Bhot was buzzing Tinje was largely empty, as was Shimen. Now we knew why. The Dolpa-pa were transhumant and on the move! Transhumance is the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter locations and we were so late in these parts that we were caught up in it. The extraordinary annual human migration that is part of the way of life in Dolpo and to which we were, until now, oblivious, was underway.
The third matter was the increasingly frozen rivers, as evidenced by the frozen waterfall we passed today. As we went further north and gained height the rivers would be increasingly frozen there too, meaning we would struggle to find liquid water and would have to melt ice in order to drink and cook. As there are hardly any dwellings that far north we would also be reliant upon our own food and tents for sleeping. There would be no lodgings between Pho and Tiyar, a distance of over 40 miles over tough terrain, and a low likelihood of finding any until Gamgadhi 10 miles further on due to the small villages probably being empty.
I was gutted. Unless we could find an alternative way of getting to Gamgadhi then we would have no choice but to take the escape route south. As I contemplated what this alternative might bring in terms of benefit and what our alternatives might be I checked the temperature outside my tent. It was only 8 pm and the temperature had already dropped to -6 Centigrade. It would drop further overnight, probably to around -10 C or less.
Tomorrow there would be some tough decisions to be made.