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Rachel’s Kangchenjunga Diary
Megan has a challenging adventure!
Rachel Blair, 2005
Rachel and Andrew joined the 27 day Kanchenjunga Double Magic trek 2005
Trek day 1
Our trek really began when we left the airport café in Kathmandu. Two mornings had been spent negotiating with different airlines, weighing and reweighing luggage, considering options, then suddenly we were rushed through curtained cubicles after a token frisking and onto a Yeti airlines flight to Biratnagar. Cloud had closed Suketar for the previous two days, with rain by late morning on the second day; the forecast was poor with storms rising from the Bay of Bengal. The airlines were busy fetching people back from Lukla; heavy snowstorms around Annapurna had killed or trapped climbers from several expeditions, and landslides had swept houses away. Airborne, we had stunning views of Everest, Makalu, Cho-Oyu, Shishapangma clear above the clouds as we left the smog of the Kathmandu valley. We could see the Kanchenjunga massif far in the distance. We landed in the Terai, hot flat country at 236m above sea level, where a wide river took huge meanders across the mudflats. Outside the small terminal at Biratnagar we waited in the shade and stripped off a few layers in the heat. Around 1pm our bus arrived and we loaded up and set off, the tall ones competing for legroom – quite a squeeze! Rice paddies, bamboo and banana palms flashed past as our driver leant continuously on the air horn and narrowly avoided cycle rickshaws, ox carts and tinselled lorries coming in the opposite direction. We passed a buffalo market in one village then passed buffalos being walked home for miles further on. 3pm came and we stopped for good dhal bhat and chapattis in a little hotel, then loaded onto a new bus. Dotted along the way were fearsome looking army checkpoints with guns trained over sandbags and chicanes of tyres and glass and razor wire to negotiate. I dozed for hours as we left the flat plains and started to wind up into the hills into dark and dense white mist, tea plantations and precipitous drops to one side. At one checkpoint we waited for an hour while the army commander was finishing his dinner, not knowing if we would be allowed to continue. Thankfully we were, and arrived at Ilam around 9pm – teeth brushed, we flopped exhausted onto narrow beds with clean sheets in a little guesthouse, ready for a 3am start the next morning.
Dogs barked in the darkness as we stumbled bleary-eyed into the street and loaded up the bus again – set off around 3.30am. After about an hour we came to the end of the paved road, just as the sky started to lighten. It was bitterly cold in the morning air and we huddled under whatever down jackets and sleeping bag liners we could pull out of the luggage. As we rocked and crawled our way up the dirt road from rut to rut we had spectacular views of rice terraces on every ridge right down to the valley bottom. Little houses were perched on the hillsides with maize drying on the balconies or strung on bamboo poles. We inched our way past the occasional bus or lorry coming in the opposite direction, with the driver’s mate tapping on the bus to say how many inches we had to spare to avoid tumbling over the edge, a hairs breadth between the wing mirrors of each vehicle. Around 9am at Phidim we had good chick pea curry and milky tea in a dim roadside café. The sun was well up now and we warmed up quickly, winding up and over two more long ridges, beautiful views in every direction, schoolchildren racing after the bus shouting Namaste! At every rest stop there were running repairs to the battered bus, chocked up on blocks with two or three men working away underneath – it held together well! We stopped for noodles in a little village around 3pm then had an enforced stop where we came to a fallen tree across the road around 5pm. The ground was alive with big red ants which were quick to crawl up trouser legs and bite so we retreated to a safe distance while men hacked at the tree with axes. Our driver maneuvered incredibly skillfully around the remains of the tree and we headed on, arriving in Taplejung just after dark. Our porters appeared out of the darkness, shouldered two big duffle bags each and led us through narrow alleyways to the camp all set up in the school grounds. It was a wonderful welcome and we were soon eating a three course meal in cosy dining tents before heading to bed – foam mattresses a relief after our bone shaking bus ride. Looked up to a star studded sky and slept to the whirring of cicadas and the sound of women singing.
We awoke with the light to find enquiring children gathered around the tents, fascinated by our every move, snot dripping from every nose! We set off around 9.30am, through terraces of cardamom and beautiful open deciduous forest. The cardamom was being harvested and we passed groups of villagers with baskets of 10-20 heads of cardamom and porters heavily laden with Hessian sacks full of dried cardamom - a pungent smoky aroma hitting us as they passed. Fire pits for drying, with husks of cardamom amongst the ashes, were dotted in clearings along the way. We wound around the hillside, crossing a landslip where the order of the neat terraces had been swept away. Around the houses were fields of beans and cabbages, with terraces of rice lower down or millet higher up, turning golden and close to harvesting. Goats, hairy black pigs or buffalo were penned or tethered near each house and chickens foraged in neatly swept yards. Ancient stone ledges for porters to rest their loads dotted the trail, some with decorated memorial stones to people who had died. We arrived at Phurumbu School around 2pm – the cooks were already busy making lunch. Afterwards some of us went for a wander onto a beautiful ridge topped with tombs with great views back to our campsite - washed in a rushing stream on the way back which was refreshing. The rest of the crew and kit had arrived from Suketar and there was lots of sorting and organisation for them to do. It was soon dinner time – we were amazed when apple pie turned up for pudding and puzzled as to how the cooks made it on a kerosene stove! We slept to the sound of singing from nearby houses.
Up at 6am for bed tea then an early breakfast then away by 7am. Beautiful light on the rice paddies in the morning and amazing suspension bridges across rushing rivers. Mixed emotions – respect, guilt, admiration – as our porters sweated up steep paths with huge loads – Namaste (I salute you) seemed appropriate but inadequate as we passed them resting. The path had been remade in several places, painstakingly cobbled with stones, the mica schist glinting silver in the sun. We met several local women with impressive gold ornaments, mainly scorpions, hanging from the nasal septum and heavy gold earrings – everyone very friendly along the trail. Colourful butterflies flitted amongst the flowers in the gardens: marigolds, cannas and cosmos. The golden threads of huge cobwebs were hung between the trees, striped spiders lurking in the middle, waiting for prey. We had a cooked lunch in a wide area on the trail then three hours walk on to Chirwa, a little village nestled by the river amongst huge black rocks. A Maoist flag fluttered at the entrance to the village – we bought guidebooks to the Kanchenjunga conservation area at a little shop then continued to a stunning campsite on a football pitch amongst golden rice fields dotted with black boulders. Washed in the rushing Tamur river, dippers and redstarts hopping amongst the rocks. We had delicious steamed momos for dinner. The roar of the river drowned out the sound of snoring from some of the tents!
Maoists turned up at the campsite at 7am before we left demanding a fee. Jamie and the sirdars managed to negotiate a deal of 3000 Rupees each instead of 5000 on the understanding that there were no Brits or Americans in the group – we all kept very quiet! Neat receipts were written for each of us. We followed the blue-grey rushing Tamur river – a pretty trail through Alder forest with ferns everywhere and glades of cardamom. We came out into a clearing with more fields of rice at Tapethok and the trill of the cicadas stopped ringing in our ears. More Maoist flags were in evidence and a little row of shops by a suspension bridge where our porters took a rest. We gradually climbed up the valley, passing little thatched houses, often with a solar panel perched above the thatch. At our lunch stop they were making paper from mulberry leaves, drying it in frames turned towards the sun balanced against sticks. There was a long steep climb after lunch and we watched the backbreaking work of building and digging new terraces from a patch of cleared forest. Round a corner children were hooting with pure exhilaration as they swung from creepers from a big tree. We talked to a lame man with a young calf. His English was very good, top of his class in Taplejung. At a long suspension bridge we stopped for a group photo then Niels went for a record on the bridge running and lost his hat in the process! Another long climb then we came steeply down a slippery trail to Sekatum where we camped opposite a beautiful tree with pink blossom by the river. I had a close encounter with 4 frightened goats on a rickety suspension bridge – I retraced my steps and none of us ended up in the river! We had beers in a little hut by the river and met ‘the German lady’, trekking on her own with a friend and some porters, obviously not happy to find out that a group was trekking alongside her on the trail. Heavy rain early in the night but cleared by morning; first and only leech attack - in the tent!
An early start and we headed off, the valley narrowing and much steeper than yesterday, each bend in the river opening up new vistas. It was a day of waterfalls – little streams cascading in ribbons down steep rock to the torrent below, sparkling with rainbows in the morning sun. Tiny terraces were perched at improbable gradients on the hillsides above us, little bamboo huts with woven or thatched roofs, surrounded by a few banana palms. We walked along a tiny path clinging to the valley sides, stopping to try some little fruits of the Gogan tree which the porters were eating, sweet nectar inside. Further on, the black and white faces of Langur monkeys peered down at us from the trees where they were eating the same fruit. We crossed the river then up and up on the other side of the valley – spotted tiny yellow breasted birds in the alder trees and a tree creeper. We stopped in a clearing where the advance party (John, Andrew and Alphonse) had hung all their socks and underwear out on the maize stubble to dry while they waited for the rest of us! We had our first taste of Karela (bitter gourd) bought along the way and cooked for lunch. Just after lunch we crossed a neatly made cantilever bridge, branches lashed together with bamboo fibre and weighted with stones on either side, with a bent branch for a hand rail. Violets appeared along the damp trail by the river, then bluebells and mountain everlasting as we wound up into meadow on the other side of the river to our camp at Amjilosa. We walked further around another corner to wash at a hosepipe where we met a little girl driving goats and a cow back home along the path in the evening light. There were cauliflowers in the garden which appeared at dinner – delicious fried! Heavy rain at 8pm sent us to bed.
Shafts of sun were coming over the hill as we finished breakfast. We set off winding through meadows then oak forest draped with lichen, beautiful views back down the valley. It was a lovely temperature, fresh after the rain and shady through the light forest – fine bamboo mixed with oak, maple and beech, leaf mould underfoot, springy to walk on and lots of beautiful streams. Pik slipped and fell off the path and cut her leg – luckily fixable with steristrips, and later Natasha twisted her ankle – on a day when the trail seemed easier! A little cantilever bridge crossed the torrent to a huge boulder – precarious looking! The lunch spot was in a sunny clearing by the river and a chilly waterfall. We continued all afternoon through lovely woodland with primulas and asters and many other flowers along the trail – our first views of snowy peaks further up the valley (Ghunshadar) - awesome! We met a group of French trekkers coming down from Pangpema – ‘tres, tres froid!’ We later learnt that one of their porters had died from altitude sickness higher up – many rumours surrounded the story but it seemed a tragic failure of judgement or action which had allowed this to happen and was a sobering reminder. Gyabla campsite was on a big flat ledge with a few houses behind, views of a long waterfall further up the valley and shaggy yak/cow crosses with tassels in their ears wandering on the hillside. We had a great game of Frisbee with the trekkers and some of the crew – gradually getting to know them all. As it got dark, we girls had a lesson in cooking dhal bhat from Megh and the rest of our kitchen crew which was great fun and the rest visited the local teahouse – dried yak cheese, tungba and dancing. It was the first night of Tihar (equivalent of Diwali) and as it got dark groups of women appeared with a tape player and danced. Beautiful faces in the light of the gas lamp and a little candle on a metal plate strewn with marigolds, babies slung on their backs, graceful hand movements and shy children peering around their skirts – a wonderful atmosphere. Anyone who contributed some money to the plate was decorated with marigolds! We had dinner then the dancing continued with everyone joining in, a really special evening. The ladies linked arms and sang some Tibetan songs – beautiful striped aprons and smiling faces in the lamplight.
Wonderful dry clear air and blue skies. We had porridge and pancakes for breakfast then set off around 8am, very cold so set off at a good pace through chilly forest, elusive sunshine on the slopes above. autumnal leaves paved the trail – yellow sycamore, red creeper leaves and holly oak, much drier underfoot. Amazing grey green lichen draped the trees – deciduous gradually giving way to pine and larch, stunning colours. We hit the sun around 10am, crested tits flitting in the larches, and followed the valley up to Phole, a Tibetan refugee village set up in 1959 when China invaded Tibet. It was cold in the wind but warm lying down in the sun, rhododendrons all around the lunch spot. We pottered on through the village, groups of yaks coming through with beautiful ear tassels and loads of wood or potatoes – some had come over from Tibet. Yak calves grazed in fields of earth with barely a blade of grass. We walked carefully to the left of ancient Mani walls of stones painted with ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. Dawa took us to see the Gompa (monastery) where there was one of only 3 particular statues of Buddha (the others are in Dharamsala and Lhasa) – intricate paintings on cloth of Buddha hung on the walls and there were rows of manuscripts which had been brought from Tibet. A little altar was covered with metal bowls of fresh water and a picture of the Dalai Lama draped with silk scarves hung behind. The warm light of little rows of butter lamps illuminated the room.
Schoolchildren with weather-beaten cheeks sang enthusiastically in the courtyard outside and women sold carpets and beads. Every house in Phole was fronted with rows of yak dung pats drying in the sun for fuel. We continued up the valley along a little track by the river, stunning coppery larches, cotoneaster and a small patch of gentians. We crossed a metal suspension bridge, parallel to the old cantilever bridge into the village of Ghunsa – 250 inhabitants, wooden houses with shingle roofs weighted down with stones, lots of prayer flags and little teahouses. Our campsite was set up outside one and a hot shower in a little shack was on offer – wonderful for the first 3 people to use it but then cold! Jerry, late arrival from Colorado, turned up having speeded 3 days in from Taplejung. It was bitterly cold as soon as we lost the sun – we drank tea in the tea house – a huge pot bubbled on the open wood fire, yak meat drying on a string above and a neat dresser behind with metal cups and plates and the tungba pots lined up (for millet beer). Tea moved on to dinner – yak meat on the menu! After dinner there was more dancing outside for Tihar, mostly the men today, one with a fantastic dragon mask. Children were also dancing, and singing, huddled around an exercise book with ragged cardigans at -10°C! Dancing was the best way to keep warm! Money was collected for the local women’s group.
A rest day! At 6am there was an inch of ice on the water bucket in the toilet shack and the pipes to the taps were still frozen by 11am. We had a late breakfast inside the teahouse, the lady of the house making yak butter tea in a huge churn by the fire and rakshi (distilled rice or millet spirit) bubbling over the fire. We washed clothes, taking several rinses before the water looked vaguely clean, and hung them out to dry, and our sleeping bags to defrost. Wandered around the village - bare earth fields, a few vegetables growing under polythene and an iced up stream coming down from the glacier above – all sorts of colours of quartz and schist and black crystalline rocks in the riverbed. In the afternoon we visited the Gompa over the river, part of it 300 years old with ancient blue and terracotta murals and carvings. The floorboards were huge, hewn and smoothed by adze. A flock of beautiful grey and white snow pigeons wheeled against the pure blue sky then settled in one of the dusty fields. At sundown we went back over the river to watch the glaciers on Ghunshadar turn pink in the evening light. We had dinner in the smoky teahouse – the cooks had made a beautiful cake saying ‘Happy end of Tihar at Ghunsa’.
An inauspicious start to the day as Dallas dropped his wallet down the toilet chute – credit cards, dollars and all! Embarrassing for him but very funny! The owners of the teahouse agreed to dismantle the toilet shack later in the day when it was warmer to try to retrieve it. A little path led out of the village through juniper bushes and the last of the coppery larches on to spruce and birch draped with lichen.
We saw an eagle flying on the other side of the valley. It was very cold until we reached the sun around 9.30am - good views of Chabur peak above us. We crossed some areas of landslip before lunch at Lapok – a stunning lunch spot with our tarpaulin spread in the sun against a huge rock. Soon after lunch we started to get views of Jannu which became more and more magnificent as we steadily plodded up a little path. We had to cross a huge landslide which was slightly precarious, especially with a detour following one of the kitchen staff who had picked the wrong path! Eventually we turned a corner and came to the neat little village of Khambachen, shingled houses, with yaks grazing, at the intersection of two rivers, Jannu towering above. We ate in one of the tea houses, a huge tower of yak dung piled just inside the door and smoky from the fire but warmer than outside. We headed to bed around 7.30pm due to the cold, the earliest yet – weird dreams.
A yak covered in frost ate millet slop from a bucket outside the teahouse in the morning, clouds of white breath in the cold air. Our trekkers’ group headed off early to explore the valley up to Jannu base camp while the others had a rest day. The first challenge was to get over the river – icy stone hopping then two very icy and very wobbly narrow plank bridges – a delicate balancing act; the poles helped a lot. We all managed to make it safely across with the help of Namgyal, Pasang, Bagman and Tsangbo and not too many wet feet! We set off across springy turf past a few stone huts for summer herders then onto a narrow path sheltered by a ridge of moraine, wind at our back and sun shining warmly on our faces, clear blue skies! We wound gradually up a rocky path getting more and more impressive views of Jannu. Around 10.30am we reached two huge rocks where there were shrines and prayer flags – beautifully peaceful. We sat there for a while and watched some blue sheep grazing on the scree above us then wandered on a little further to see the glacier – amazing crumbly steep gully sides down to the main glacier – impressive seracs and the huge north face of Jannu opposite – awe inspiring.
Two eagles flew low over us as we walked back to the rock – gentians everywhere amongst the grass, some very tiny, deep blue. We wandered back down the valley, snowball and yak dung fights with the sherpas along the way. I washed my hair in an icy stream – tingling cold but it dried quickly in the warm afternoon sun. We were met on the way down by some of our kitchen crew who had kindly brought us hot orange in a thermos – we are so well looked after! The river crossing was still quite tricky despite the lack of ice – good teamwork and no wet feet! John felt sick at the end of the day and headed to bed, looked after by Megan. After the sun had gone down our porters played football and volleyball in their yellow and red jackets, or sat outside on yak hides playing cards. Jannu was mysteriously luminous appearing through the clouds in the semi dark. Dallas shared his Glava liqueur after dinner – smuggled in a Sigg bottle – a lovely end to the best day yet. Vivid dreams again – maybe the altitude?
Very cold overnight and in the morning – John was feeling better but still commented ‘This part of the day sucks!’ as he emerged from his tent at 6.30am! We set off up the valley on a narrow path through dwarf rhododendrons and prickly bushes – the kitchen crew soon steamed past us at top speed. We watched the aerial acrobatics of choughs playing on the wind near some cliffs and crossed another landslide with some boulder hopping. Snow pigeons circled above and we had good views of blue sheep staring at us curiously from the scree. We passed a beautiful iced up waterfall with huge icicles dangling from the rock – a fairy waterfall in local legend. We had lunch on the yak pasture at Ratang – a little family of yak herders appeared from a smoky tent to watch us. We sheltered behind a big rock with fantastic views of Khambachen peak, Mera Peak and a huge glacier – a new moon appearing high in the sky before we left. We carried on through rugged rocky country, imagining snow leopards looking down on us but seeing none! We picked our way across more moraines then crossed a little cantilever bridge tied together with yak hide to the bleak sandy expanse of Lhonak, a little river winding through the middle. Stunning views of fluting on Wedge peak and light on Tent peak at the head of the valley, snowy peaks in every direction and the vast rubble strewn Kanchenjunga glacier below us. Yaks grazed all around, unconcerned as the tents went up – a beautiful sunset looking up the valley then a bright new moon and a cold night set in. We were cosy in our dining tent with the gas lamp – checked oxygen saturations after dinner – several people feeling the altitude a bit – started taking some Diamox. To bed to the gentle clanging of yak bells.
A bitterly cold night – everything frozen solid inside the tent except the water bottle inside my sleeping bag – some cold trips to the toilet tent in the night though fantastic starry sky to make it worth getting up. We set off very slowly after breakfast, parallel to the glacier, all puffing a bit, more and more views of wedge peak with its serrated flutings. Saw and heard some ptarmigan like birds amongst the rocks. A blue green pool seemed odd amongst the dirt and rubble on the glacier. A Lammergeier swooped low over us as we plodded on. My fingers and toes tingled from the Diamox. We stopped in warm sun in the shelter of a big rock on a little yak pasture and had lunch. While we were there the sherpas had radioed to say that Mike had turned back struggling to breathe, then Dallas turned up blowing his whistle to say that Niels had collapsed. Andrew and Jamie headed back with Dallas to see how Niels was, while the rest of us carried on slowly. We were met just before Pangpema by the kitchen crew with kettles of hot orange which was wonderful. We walked down to Pangpema as sherpas struggled to put the tents up in strong winds. There was a little hut with a turf roof where our kitchen crews had set up kitchen and soon noodle soup appeared. The views of Kanchenjunga were magnificent with stunning peaks all around, blue sheep picking their way across scree above. An amazing sunset - golden light settling on wisps of cloud further down the valley. There was quite a jolly atmosphere with 12 of us squeezed into the big dining shelter; and news from Lhonak that Niels and Mike were OK – Jamie stayed back to look after them. It soon got very cold – ice on the inside of the dining shelter despite all being inside – popcorn and more soup arrived then 7 pots of food – 2 types of pasta, 2 types of potatoes and vegetables and sauce – the kitchen crews had excelled themselves! We were all in our tents by 6.30pm – earliest yet! Feeling the altitude – headaches and a bit breathless; And and I decided against the 6000m hill the next day – in the end 4 made it – John, John, Ornella and Jerry.
Slept badly and woke at 4.30am to the roar of the kerosene stoves as the cooks prepared breakfast for the hill-walkers! We got up when the sun hit the tents around 7.30am and it was suddenly warm, from bitterly cold. Piles of yellow ice around the tents marked pee spots in the night and melted in the morning sun. Dallas had odd vision after breakfast and none of us felt that great but it was much easier going down than up and we made good time on the descent. The German lady passed us without a word, going up towards Pangpema! We met Jamie on the path around 11am and stopped for lunch then got to Lhonak around 1pm. Pottered across the sandy shingle to explore while Andrew rested, not feeling very well – some bug. I saw a lot of blue sheep, a falcon skimming along the pink rock faces above and a lair filled with lots of different bird feathers – a sign of some sort of cat! A little boy, maybe six years old, with a huge basket hung from his forehead was wandering across the brittle yak pasture collecting yak dung. Another maybe four years old, carried a baby on his back and wandered around the tents, eating dry noodles from a packet in his pocket and watching our every move. The summiteers arrived back around 4pm – tired but glad to have done it! Jamie explained the exit options for our group and we decided to risk flying out of Suketar rather than bussing it as the forecast was better – Andrew and Mike to come down with us and Gerardo and Jerry considering it.
Up early, very cold. There was a lot of sorting out of tents and loads for the different groups before a group photo then we set off – beautiful warm sunny day, less windy. Blue skies, blue sheep up on the hillside, and choughs playing in the wind. We picked our way back through the landslides, stunning views of mountains all around, iced cascades and colourful thorn bushes, red and orange. We arrived at Khambachen around 12.30am, just in time to see Alphonse emerging from the hot shower shack! Several of the rest of us tried the shower – hot but very low so a squatting shower! And headed again for the river instead! There were more deliberations and contact with the office who were trying to organize tickets for us to fly out. In the end it was decided that we should all spend the night at Khambachen and fly a day later on a charter. We had lunch outside, then tea in the smoky teahouse when it got too cold to stay outside. Pik squeezed the abscess in Jamie’s armpit – yum - before dinner; then we had a nice last evening all together with the last of the Glava and Benedictine.
Sadly said goodbye to John, Natasha, Dallas, Jamie, Dawa and Da'Yula and the rest of the crew who were staying, Dallas and Dawa both limping badly and planning to walk out later. Niels came with us as his knees were hurting. Set off for Ghunsa, a little boy following us down the path then hollering at the top of his voice from a rock as we disappeared around the corner. We soon reached the sunshine and warmed up. We headed steeply down across the landslides – looking down made it seem more exposed than on the way up! We really appreciated the warmth and the trees on the way down, grey lichen in birches then pine, juniper and larch, dropping needles all the time. Somehow the views were different, a beautiful trail through the low forest down to Ghunsa with lots of birds. It was very hot on the balcony of the guesthouse in the sun, but cold in the shade so we swapped between the two, while Alphonse treated his foot fungi – ‘the chanterelle of foot fungi’ apparently! Collected the gear we had left at Ghunsa after lunch then headed off past the Gompa and into the larch and pine forest following the river down the valley. Monster-like trees outside Phole were covered in thick green moss. A little aquifer diverted from a waterfall with bamboo sent a clear stream of water into Phole, powering water prayer wheels at the entrance to the village. Chasing the light, we arrived at the little terraced campsite just as the sun dipped over the hill. And and I found a stream to wash in then tea and biscuits as everyone arrived and the tents went up. Pik and And treated one of the girl porters who was ill with abdominal pains and diarrhoea. We had tables and chairs, a novelty for us trekkers, and the big dining tent for our new group of 11. Beautiful stars and a moon just over half full.
A warmer night – Andy’s hanky still froze after he washed it in the morning wash water but the water in the tent didn’t freeze at night. Lovely pale yellow flowers on some azaleas by the path, rhododendrons and bamboo, yellow and red leaves on the path, and lots of little ups and downs. We arrived at Gyabla and the sunshine around 10am, lovely and warm! We washed clothes and hair under the tap and sat in the sun while the others arrived. After lunch we set off through dense bamboo on a shady path past some pretty waterfalls. The path then climbed steeply up and up, rocky steps for over an hour – we had forgotten this bit! The porters were singing away at the top of the hill then whistling on their way down. We eventually came out into balmy sunshine in the meadows leading to Amjilosa, precipitous drops to the river below. Alphonse and Pik sitting in the sun, Alphonse on his second beer by the time we arrived! Andrew shaved under the tap, razor constantly clogged with a few weeks growth, and Alphonse played with a skinny kitten which appeared. Megan had had a fall and grazed hands and knees so was hobbling a bit. Pik arranged for us all to buy chang for the staff as it had been a hard day for them. Our tent was perched on the edge of a terrace, chickens pecking all around. The crew were very busy setting up camp and cooking, lots of singing.
A huge breakfast of porridge and pancakes then off around 7.45am, just as a group of Italians passed us on their way up the valley. Headed down the steep and winding path down to the river – the porters passing us after about 20 minutes with whoops and yells all the way, rocketing down the hill in their plimsolls! Over the river and up steep rocky staircases on the other side – back into cardamom country. There was beautiful pink blossom dotted amongst the forest and a rainbow in a long waterfall. We came down a steep earth path to a tunnel of gourds by a little bamboo house then back over the river, no monkeys today. We arrived early at the campsite at Sekatum and washed in the river before lunch. As ever there was bargaining over Spam! The girl porters were plaiting bracelets from coloured wools and all the men kept stopping to watch. Mike appeared from the river with a very neat moustache – back to his old self! A few clouds came over as it got dark and we started to worry if we would be flying out of Suketar!
Awoke to find cloud thickly clagged around us in the valley! It was a beautiful walk down to Chirwa, following the river as it became bigger and more powerful, back to the land of cardamom and cicadas. There was heavy cloud all morning and helicopters coming back and forth from Suketar - the chances of flying out looked slimmer. The rice all around our campsite was being harvested, cut with scythes, laid out in bundles to dry then threshed on a big tarpaulin. Little children carried the huge bundles of straw to a pile where they played slide. Others piled huge bundles of cut rice into baskets to take to the village to thresh – we learnt about the cycle of crops – rice, potatoes/wheat, rice. After lunch we pottered into Chirwa – a group of Maoists were eating noodle soup in the teahouse and the atmosphere was very subdued. We heard from Namgyal later that the Maoists had ‘arrested’ 35 members of families in the village who were not supporting them. They had been taken to camps further down the valley and would probably not be back for 3 or 4 months – no wonder the atmosphere was subdued. We felt for people there, just trying to eke out a living. We caught a fragment of the Remembrance Sunday parade in London on the shortwave radio, very strange to hear bagpipes and the National anthem so far away from anywhere. Dinner then bed around 8pm.
Thick damp mist with a little fine rain greeted us at 6am! We hit the trail around 7.30am, up and up following the cooks out of Chirwa, very humid and clammy. We were back to more and more beautiful little houses with corn drying on the verandas or millet or rice on sheets in the yards. We wound up and down over two ridges to Linkim, where we had had lunch before. The sun was just breaking through. After lunch we set off in warm sunshine, marvelled again at the terraces and headed up and down cobbled staircases over another 3 ridges – a good workout as Megan said! Children coming out of school followed us persistently saying ‘Give me pen’ and seemed to attach themselves to Jerry who looked like the Pied Piper up ahead of us. We arrived at Phurumbu just as they were finishing lessons. Pik and Ornella were learning the parts of the body in Nepali as we arrived then we moved onto songs – Ornella and I, then Alphonse, entertained them for a while! The schoolteacher showed And around the little school – neat and bare inside, Maoist writing and signs scrawled on the outside walls. We had our last meal in the big dining tent – Dhal bhat!
We left Phurumbu around 7.30am before the school children arrived and pulled up the steep climb up the ridge then the path flattened out. More stunning terraces and woodland, and children carrying huge baskets of grass for the cattle before school. We pottered on slowly, taking photos, not wanting the trek to end. We suddenly realised we had run out of arrows and were all the way around the ridge above Taplejung – no sign of any of the others or the porters! We asked for directions and followed a steep little path all the way back up the hill and eventually made it to Suketar – all the others were well into their beers by the time we arrived. Pasang and Tsangbo met us on the way into the village, all smiles to see us, Gerardo turned up shortly afterwards. We sorted beds in the guesthouse then had lunch. We had a complicated and controversial time sorting out all the tips for the crew, cleaning Suketar out of small change, but eventually managed and sorted the money into named envelopes. We had a feast for the last night – chicken soup then fried chicken and fresh vegetables brought by Bagman from Taplejung. There was then a cake, saying ‘Happy end of trek and come back again’! After dinner we gave all the tips to the crew – lots of clapping and smiles and warm handshakes, then the porters danced and sang and drank tungba and rakshi and we danced and drank beer! Pasang Sherpa and Indira Tamang, one of the cooks, held a ceremony for ‘Mit’, a commitment of close friendship or brotherhood and the three girl porters committed to sisterhood too. We celebrated with them, with more beer!
We were up at 6.30am to pack bags ready to go to the airstrip. We had breakfast in the road outside our guesthouse – no toilets as we and the crew had overcome the plumbing of the one toilet in the guesthouse the night before, so we took a few strolls to the edge of the village! It was completely clear with us, but too foggy in Kathmandu for the plane to set off- typical! We sat in the sun, reading and waiting to see what would happen, while cloud welled up from the valley. We said goodbye to our porters and crew, with more photos and presenting of scarves and they headed down to Taplejung to catch the bus, some still drunk from the night before! News came that the plane had flown to Lukla and back and was ready to come to us after the pilot had had lunch! Soon we heard that it had left Kathmandu – getting out seemed more hopeful! Around 11am we checked our bags through the police check and weaved through a barbed wire corridor into the airstrip compound. We watched the plane come in, a spectacular landing on the bumpy grass, and rattle its way to the end of the runway. Passengers got off then we boarded and bumped our way back uphill to the top of the runway – the female pilot (lots of jokes about women drivers!) revved the engines to full throttle then we lurched our way down the grassy runway, a few bumps and suddenly launched into mid air – exhilarating! We had wonderful views of Jannu and Kanchenjunga, then Makalu, Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse.…, then lower terraced hills with winding paths along the ridges and several landslides, then back to the smog hanging over Kathmandu – we circled and landed to great applause! Alphonse made it to the nearest patch of grass at the edge of the runway for an urgent pee! We were met by staff from the office in a bus and a van and headed back to Hotel Dynasty for that longed for shower – then later a pizza at Fire and Ice! It was strange to be back in the clamour of the city - soon we were wishing we were back in the mountains!