Freed from concerns about whether or not we would be able to complete our journey everyone had a good night’s sleep. The depth of the sleep was possibly assisted by a wee dram or two the previous evening. Capitalising on his success in selling us the bottle of sweet Spanish wine, our host the monk had miraculously unearthed a bottle of whiskey. Not just any whisky either; he had found a battered and very dusty but nonetheless intact bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. After several minutes of close negotiation with Jovi the bottle was ours and following a dinner of roti with a very tasty yak and potato stew we proceeded to pour a glass for everyone. That was we 5 trekkers, Gyalbu, Sangye, the horseman and the 3 or 4 villagers who had popped in on some pretext or other to get a better look at we visitors. Oh, and the monk’s son. The monk himself and his wife declined a drink which limited the round to about half the bottle. Of course there was a second round and by then the mood in the shadowy room, warmed by the central stove, was distinctly jovial.
Breakfast was a repeat of the previous day with the monk’s wife making enough roti for 2 each. There was plenty of jam for those who wanted it but the peanut butter purchased from the headman’s wife yesterday proved to be very popular too. The scene is captured in this photo in which Tim and Mark are tucking into their breakfast on the floor chatting to Jovi and Lizzie unseen to the right of the bench-table. The jam is on the floor while an almost empty jar of peanut butter is on the makeshift table among glass cups of tea and the thermos flask; universally used in lieu of a teapot in Dolpo.
From their slightly raised position Jovi and Lizzie had a good view to the other side of the room, now empty of other people save for the monk’s son who was having his breakfast too. He was having roti with tsampa porridge which can be seen on the floor in front of him and in which a piece of cheese is floating. The monk’s wife is obscured by the stove chimney pipe. Behind her on the bare wall next to the window are the customary Buddhist photographs, and in this house they were not accompanied by Wonder Woman. A typical array of cookware and stores are on, in and around the shelves. The cookware in this house was notable for being clean and shiny and to their right we saw plastic sealed containers; something not seen before and indicating the relative wealth of the family. To the left of the photo is a selection of flasks and next to the red jug which I had used yesterday to pour water over myself during my ‘shower’ there is an empty bottle of Nepalese ‘Ruslan’ vodka. When it last contained vodka I don’t know as this is an older style of bottle to the current Ruslan, but it was now used to measure Raksi into the kettle on the stove. Apparently Ruslan, produced in the Himalayan Distillery at Birgunj to the south of Kathmandu, many miles from the Himalayas close to the border with India, has around 90% of the market share for vodka in Nepal. But not in the monk’s house where Raksi or tea is preferred. Next to the Ruslan bottle is a churn for making butter tea.
As we were in no hurry the sun was high before we departed. While Namgung is a short walk, to make for the next village, Shey Gompa, in a single day would be too much as that would include traversing the Sela La, a pass of 5095m (16,715ft). There were two ways of getting to Namgung. One initially headed north from the village before broadly heading south-west over the mountains for a few miles. The alternative followed the Nagano Khola south to its tributary, the Namgung Khola, and then followed that upstream to the village. We were advised before leaving Saldang that the mountain route was best so we headed north. This took the same route through the village as had been taken yesterday when we went to the headman’s house. Having passed the monastery Gyalbu asked an incoming traveller to confirm we were on the best route. There followed some discussion as there was some uncertainty over the best way to go. While Tim and Gyalbu sought clarity two young boys who were with the traveller detached themselves from the conversation and came over to where the rest of us were waiting, seemingly intrigued by our attire. They could have been drawing a comparison between their clothes and ours. While our gear was quite grubby it was typically brightly coloured and in good repair. They by contrast were wearing very worn and ripped tunics. They did at least have laces in their shoes although they and their trousers, one of which had holes in the knees, had seen better days. Despite this they seemed in good spirits and smiled broadly at us. Most engaging was the hat that one of the little fellows was wearing; a silver-grey baseball cap sprouting horns in the style of a Viking helmet.
Once the discussion on the route was completed we all went back down the hill past the monastery. The traveller and the boys continued their journey while we retraced our steps having now been advised the river route was better than going over the mountain. We followed the river for around 2 miles until we passed the small village of Kirathan nestled between steep terracing and the even steeper mountainside on the other side of the river. There were a few people in sight and one or two animals but Kirathan, like Saldang, looked as empty as its dry and dusty fields looked forlorn. I for one was now glad we were heading south, back into a world of people and vitality. The wilderness of the borderlands had been fascinating to see and challenging to traverse, but Dolpo had shown itself to be more than a series of barren high passes and our trek was more than an exercise in high-altitude survival.
Shortly past Kirathan we reached the Namgung Khola and turned to the south-west up the wide steep-sided valley that would eventually lead us to Namgung 5 or 6 miles away. We had to take care as this was not a recognised trekking route and the path was not shown on our map. The mountain track had been but this one wasn’t and there were several minor river junctions that would need to be navigated.
As had been the case with the Nagano Khola valley, the Namgung Khola valley was broad with signs of it handling a torrent in the springtime as the winter snow melts, but now the flow was much reduced. It was at least flowing and the degree of icing was less than we had seen further north. There was more vegetation too. The low sparse scrub was still evident but there were now larger woody bushes not seen before. Although these didn’t extend far up the valley sides which rapidly became steep and rocky, they and the occasional leafy plant in shady spots provided meagre grazing for our lead pony during a mid-morning break.
As the valley gained height so the vegetation reduced and before long the river’s flow reduced still more as we found ourselves in a canyon rather than a valley. Ahead we could see 2 people who had stopped for a break and shortly we caught up with them. We recognised the younger man as the monk’s son with whom we had taken breakfast earlier. He and his uncle, who we hadn’t met before, were woodcutters heading further up the canyon to where small trees were known to grow to gather fuel. We had noticed that the family stove was not fed with the dried dung common elsewhere but couldn’t understand where the wood came from. Now we knew. We exchanged a few words with them, typically Namaste and Tashi delay leaving more meaningful conversation to Tim and Gyalbu, then walked up the canyon together with the monk’s son leading. Before long the river reappeared, and in sufficient volume to warrant some care being taken in its crossing as there was no bridge. Why would there be? This wasn’t a recognised path although its use as such was clear by the narrow dusty track that we were following. Our new friends came to our assistance as they knew where to cross and fashioned a stepping stone causeway over the deepest part of the icy river. This spared another wet boots/dry feet or no boots/icy feet dilemma from which we had been saved when the rivers were frozen.
Shortly after the crossing we could see caves in the steep escarpment to our right, in front of which some appeared to have rough walling. Tim told us it wasn’t unusual for Buddhist monks to spend years, at least 3 but often much longer, as hermits in deep solitary contemplation. As there had been monasteries in this valley for centuries it was highly likely that the cave we could see had been, or indeed was, occupied by a Buddhist hermit. The walls would have provided a measure of security and warmth during the winter. Perhaps some food might have been grown in small unseen gardens but more likely there would have been some food provided from the monastery and left at a pre-arranged location for the hermit to collect without compromising their privation. The religious significance of this area was marked by chortens in the vicinity of the cave.
Shortly after we came to a river junction. Our route lay with the main river which turned west, while the woodcutters were taking a small tributary to the south so it was time to bid them farewell. But not before we shared our lunch with them and their photographs were taken, in this case with Gyalbu on the left.
As we continued up the Namgung Khola there were several more times that we needed to cross it, sometimes with the help of rocks cast into the water as stepping stones when the river was too deep to ford and too wide to jump. These crossings were accomplished without any dunking and after a while the river thinned to a trickle and we found ourselves once more in an area of more bushes and even small trees despite the now arid terrain.
In due course, as had happened before, the vegetation gave way to the more usual sandy and stony valley floor and we could see the ruins of a monastery built into the rocks to our right on the south-facing side of the canyon. Ahead we could see more chortens indicating that Namgung Gompa was not far ahead. Fifteen minutes later the river made another reappearance as the valley narrowed and the flow was even sufficient to support a small water mill which would have been used earlier in the year to mill grain from the millet, buckwheat or barley grown on the terracing around Namgung village.
Before we reached the gompa (monastery) we were greeted by some children; 2 boys and their older sister. They chatted with Gyalbu and led us to their father, the gompa-keeper. While Tim discussed food and accommodation with him, a man in his early 60’s, we enjoyed the last of the sun before it dipped below the mountain ridge. The gompa-keeper’s daughter, probably in her early teens and so too young to be dressed traditionally, particularly liked having her picture taken and even posed for us. She told us she had lots of brothers and sisters and the boys we had seen were her brothers.
Namgung is a small village; just a hamlet really, the centrepiece of which is the handsome red-brick gompa. Plain fronted save for 4 windows its main entrance was to the right. To the front of the gompa are terraced fields which in summer would be cloaked in green crops but now were dry and dusty, with access from the gompa courtyard guarded by a mastiff. What the dog was guarding, attached as its was to a very long chain, we weren’t sure. As it looked completely uninterested in us a couple of our number forgot the warning and ventured too close at which time the dog erupted in a cacophony of enough snarling and barking to make the intruders recoil and retreat very quickly. It didn’t appear too serious and no injuries were inflicted but a wide berth was maintained in future. Either side of the gompa were traditional stone dwellings with small windows, firewood on their roofs crowned with prayer flags. That on the left transpired to be where the gompa-keeper lived with his family. In front of the terraced fields close to the river were a few other small houses and behind the gompa were a series of significant chortens backed by a cleft in the mountain side through which a frozen waterfall could be seen. On the other side of the cleft were a few delapidated dwellings. Further down the valley was the old, now ruined, gompa at the foot of the escarpment above the scrubby scree.
Tim returned from his discussions with the gompa-keeper with a broad grin. The gompa was unused at the moment as all the monks were away; where he didn’t say. He would be very pleased to feed us in his kitchen, the one he (actually his wife) would normally use to prepare food for the monks, and we were welcome to sleep where the monks would if they were here; on the floor of the gompa itself! We were delighted. No need for tents in the courtyard! There was no toilet, longdrop or otherwise. The advice was to do as the monks do; climb over the wall of the top terrace into the cleft in the mountainside and find a sheltered spot.
The gompa-keeper then helped move our gear through the ornate doorway and inside. The room was colourful and ornately decorated with intricate and stylish embroidery around the walls, with drapes of gold, blue and red. The beams and supporting woodwork were richly painted in primary colours and there were rows of drawers containing religious texts above shelves of books, chalices, candlesticks and statues of Buddha. It appeared the monks had been away for some time as the room was also used for storing grain and other less spiritual artefacts. In this region even religious property has to serve more than one purpose and were it not for that we would have been sleeping outside. As it was I slept just where Tim is standing in the photo below.
Once we had laid out our sleeping bags we went into the gompa kitchen where Gyalbu and Sangye were making tea. We accessed this through a doorway to the left of the gompa and then down a ladder into a dark room. It was furnished as we had become familiar but this room was clearly poorer. There were few rugs, the walls were bare and there was little shelving as pots, pans and flasks were piled on the floor. Oddly there were a few nails in the wall from which hung a cheese grater, a ladle and a julienne peeler. This being a monastery there was no Raksi but, surprisingly, the gompa-keeper produced some chang.
Chang, sometimes written as chhaang, is a Nepalese and Tibetan beer-like drink homebrewed from barley or millet. It is usually drunk at room temperature in summer, but is often served hot when the weather is colder. We had it cold.
We spoke to the gompa-keeper and his wife over a dinner of Nepali bread and a thin soup containing pieces of gristly meat. We learned that the man was indeed in his early 60’s, 62 actually, while his wife was 48. They had 9 children, 5 of whom had left home. I suspect the Namgung cuisine and nightlife wasn’t to their liking. We on the other hand were grateful for the family’s hospitality in this poor hamlet nestled in the heart of Inner Dolpo. We seemed much further from the open and apparently prosperous (by Dolpo standards) Saldang than one short trek. These people were not transhumint herders. The gompa has to be looked after all year and our arrival with the means to pay for food and lodgings will have eased their struggle to make ends meet. We were seeing a different face of life in the Dolpo. A face that despite the hardship still smiled.